The first orange rays of the sun were streaking the plain behind Raj's back, throwing shadow over the oasis of El Djem and the fortified hamlet at its center. Left and right the line of the escarpment stretched into black shadow, streaked with touches of blue and ochre as the rock began to catch the light; the high steppe was behind them, the low desert of erg in front. Sand leaked over the caprock of the basin; the water came from the edge below, where the limestone of the hills rested on granite and the water table was shallow enough for wells and wind-pumps or artesian springs. The air was still, a little chilly from the desert night, with a slight green smell from the fields.
Raj raised his binoculars. El Djem was built on a mound of earth two meters high, surrounded by a wall of date palm trunks twice as tall again, bound with ancient iron-hard rawhide and plastered with mud. The minarets of a mosque stood stark and white against the paling stars, one cutting across the yellow circle of Maxiluna. More to the point, so did a heliograph tower built into the stockade . . . and the success of this raid depended on how much damage the two battalions could do before substantial Colonist forces came up.
Three figures ghosted in; M'lewis, Muzzaf, and one of the fifty or so border irregulars who had joined the 5th. And none stuck with the 2nd,Raj thought with satisfaction. Thank the Spirit of Man of the Stars that Stanson and his crowd were a hundred kilometers east at Ksar Bougib; the two forces were to work towards each other. It was bad enough being responsible for his own fuckups.
"Went loik a charm, ser," M'lewis said. "Blastin' powder in place."
He nodded thanks to Muzzaf, who had procured that and a number of other useful items for the 5th. And whose trader's knowledge of this side of the border had been invaluable. Komar was unhealthy for him, right now, but it was his own inner demons that had brought him on the raid, rather than travelling west to his kin in Kendrun along with his family and movable wealth. The trooper and the Komarite left as quietly as they had arrived.
The borderman irregular remained for a moment and laughed softly, looking down on the oasis with much the same expression as a housewife standing in her chickenyard and picking out a roasting pullet. "These fellahin are sheep, lord," he said. "Not like the Bedouin. We cannot raid so far as this on our own, it is a great pity." His smile grew broader. "We heard their muzzein squealing, 'Prayer is better than sleep.' Soon they will squeal a different song."
"There hasn't been a Civil Government raid here in over twenty years," Muzzaf said, returning with two dogs. "And that was a failure." He would be riding with the irregulars. They got on surprisingly well with the man from Komar city, and they had been very useful as well. Although their high motivation had its drawbacks, this was a grudge fight for them.
"Positions, then," Raj said. He touched his amulet, eyes closed for a moment and lips moving silently in prayer. Oh Spirit of Man of the Stars, you know how busy I must be this day. Do not forget me, even if I forget you. Then he moved crouching to the long black shape of Horace, kneeled into the prone dog's saddle. The barrel-sized muzzle swung back toward him, and a tongue like a wet towel stropped across his leg. "Ready, boy," he whispered. Birds sang in the fruit trees of the oasis, and dactosauroids hissed.
The gates of El Djem swung open; there were sheds and barns aplenty among the palm-groves and fields, but no houses. However slack the hamlet had grown, it had been founded as a defensive outpost and some traditions remained. The laborers crowded through in clumps and straggling trickles, bearded men in long nightshirt-like garments, hoes and spades and pruning hooks over their shoulders. Raj tensed his knees, and Horace rose smoothly from his crouch. All around him there was a rustle and click as three hundred others did likewise; the other two companies were downslope a hundred meters, to provide a base-of-fire. There was a sound like a hundred iron gearwheels turning in a watermill, the sound of massed wardogs growling.
"And—" Raj muttered to himself. Timing was everything, the difference between a cheap victory and a bloody rat fight through the packed maze, against men who lived in it and were defending their own homes and families.
Whunk.The explosion of the twenty-kilo charge of blasting powder was massive but the noise was muffled, because the men who had set it had buried it a meter deep in the base of the wall. From here, Raj could see the huge spurt of dust and stones; the top of the heliograph tower quivered, swayed, lurched, then toppled outward with an initial slowness that was almost stately. A thrashing stick figure arched out from the signalling platform, to strike the ground and bounce just before the last chunks of mud and wood settled in a haze of powdered adobe. There was a solid knot of men in the gate, now, and a fan spreading out into the field beyond. About a thousand, probably most of the adult males in El Djem; they had stopped, chattering among themselves and craning to see what had happened around the circular stockade from the gate. They were theoretically soldiers, a land grant militia, possibly even fairly effective in a fixed defensive position if given time to mobilize and arm.
Which time he had no slightest intention of granting.
From the slope below Raj's position the two hundred troopers of Second and Third Companies rose and began to pour volleys into the crowd; eight hundred meters range, and Armory rifles were efficient mankillers at that distance. They were deployed in two lines, one kneeling and one standing erect, firing by half-platoons; the sound was like an almost continuous series of single gunshots, but magnified twelvefold. BAM and the long barrels of the rear rank swung down in unison, as the troopers reloaded. The front-rank weapons rose, precise as a ballet, or the shuttle of a loom. BAM. There was light enough now to tell a white thread from a black, the traditional test, but still sufficiently dim that the orange-red muzzle flashes of the rifles were long stabs of fire, hot combs teeth-on to the target. BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.
Raj drew his pistol as the first volley slapped and echoed across the basin, flipped it into his left hand and drew the saber. A long slither and rasp sounded behind him as three companies of cavalry did likewise.
"Trumpeter, sound charge!"
"UP AND AT 'EM!"
* * *
The carnage in the gateway would have been sickening, if time or inclination had allowed such luxuries. The packed dirt of the lane between the two log-and-mud blockhouses was carpeted with bodies and turning to slimy mud with blood and body fluids. The noise that bounced back and forth between the straight confines of the gateway was stunning, the howling of men and dogs, screaming of the wounded and dying as they were pulped into a paste of dirt and flesh. Past the blockhouses the lane made a half-turn and there were more of the Colonists still on their feet; dazed, mostly, their bodies spattered with the blood of the men who had been a few paces ahead of them. Raj saw their faces go slack with new fear for an instant, before the sabers of the 5th and the teeth of its dogs were upon them.
A dozen or so of the survivors had retained enough presence of mind to try and shut the gates; futile, most of the troopers had split off from First Company and were scaling the palisade from the saddle around its whole circumference . . . but it was an improvement on standing and waiting to be killed, he supposed. Horace and three other mounts reared their forepaws against the iron-sheathed wood, and Raj felt a jar that ran all the way up his spine to whipcrack his neck and make his teeth meet with a clack. The effect on the twin leaves of the gates was to turn them into giant flyswatters that hammered back against the buildings on either side with a thud that shook the ground beneath his feet. They rebounded enough to let the remains of the men behind them drop.
"Keep moving!"Raj shouted, using the opportunity to pull Horace up.
The words were lost in the overwhelming roar of battle-maddened dogs in the narrow way, but the gesture with the sword might do some good. Speed and impact were the weapons here; they had to overwhelm all resistance before the locals could organize. . .
The flood of First Company poured by, riding knee to knee, then slowed to a trickle. Shots were crackling further into the alley-maze of the town; it was all mud brick, with narrow windows and jutting rafter-logs, some of the tenements four stories high. Raj could see figures in 5th Descott blue swarming on the firing platform of the palisade, some kneeling to sweep snipers off the roofs, others swarming down the ladders into El Djem. A quick glance out the gate showed the reserve rounding up the few hundred laborers who had managed to scatter into the oasis, advancing on foot at the run, and—
Horace's jumping wheel might have unseated his rider, if a lifetime's reflex had not adjusted Raj's muscle before his conscious mind was aware of the dog's movement. Two men had been close enough to the hinge of the gate to avoid being crushed, and they ignored the false promise of the open gate to attack Raj. He fired four times, and the one with the pitchfork spun and fell with a bullet in his thigh. That had been a bad choice, because the other had a pruning hook, a half-meter of steel like a giant straight-razor on a head-high pole. Also he was younger, and looked determined . . .
The dog whipped his head back at the man's first swing; the Colonist reversed the polearm and thrust at Raj's face. He caught it on the blade of his saber and let it run down the steel to ring against the basket hiltguard, used that to immobilize it for a second. The shaft of the pruning hook even provided an aiming point as he trained the pistol at the Colonist's center of mass. A bullet went past Raj's ear with a flat whak,and the whole side of his face crawled as if the skin was trying to suck itself in. No time for it.The young man froze, white showing all around his eyes as the Descotter's finger tightened on the trigger.
Snak.The hammer fell on a defective round, but Horace's teeth closed on the burrwood shaft, splintering it like a straw caught in a doorjamb. The villager had time for one scream as the horrible fangs closed again, on his face. Well-trained, the dog dropped the corpse and spun again in a circle smaller than his own length, ears almost straight as his nose pointed toward the sound of a rifle action working. The man on the roof above was wearing a robe and ha' aik,and armed with a light repeating-carbine; he was only ten meters away, taking careful aim from one knee. Raj seemed to be imprisoned in honey, moving in dreamlike slowness. A hot-chill flash ran across his skin, as the body's refusal to believe in death met the mind's knowledge that there was no way to dodge a bullet in the time available. All the universe vanished, outside the enormous circle of the muzzle.
The lariat that settled around the sniper's shoulders was almost as much a surprise to Raj as it was to the sniper; his brain had screened out peripheral vision. The trooper galloping his dog down the lane to the gate already had the rope snubbed to the pommel of his saddle; ten meters before he reached the Captain the braided leather cord went bar-tight and the Colonist shot off the roof as if launched by a catapult. He landed in the street with a dull thud that cut his shout of rage off knife-sharp, and dragged fast enough that he rolled to the feet of the two dogs when the trooper reined in.
"Nice work, Companion," Raj said, conscious of breathing once again; an impressive display, even though the lariat was a standard working tool back in Descott County.
"I was a vakaro for a while, sir," Corporal Holdor Tennan said. "With an outfit rounding up wild cattle . . . Senior Lieutenant Staenbridge's compliments, and they've secured the mosque."
There were shouts outside the gate, and Kaltin Gruder jogged through at the head of a column of dismounted troopers with fixed bayonets. Raj held up a hand as he began to speak, turned to the other Companion: "My congratulations, and he's to hold in position, stationing marksmen on the minarets and the roof of the Caid's mansion. Kaltin," he continued, turning to the man standing at his stirrup. The troopers were fanning out down the street, scanning windows and rooftops. "Ready?"
A brisk nod; even after a week's march through the desert the elder Gruder had kept a clean tunic for the attack. He had even shaved,which was devotion, if you liked.
"All the ones who got out are secured, Raj," he said. "Put 'em in a livestock pen, trussed up. Two-twenty, about. No casualties."
"Well. You and Thiddo fan out—" He made an encompassing gesture "—and start doing a house-to-house; First and Fifth already have blocking forces at the intersections and fire teams on the palisade. Quick and dirty; spike anyone who gives you trouble. Separate the men out, move the commoners out to that pen. Women, children, and anyone who looks important into the center of town, we'll use the mosque to contain them. And keep the troops in hand."
"Won't be able to much longer, Raj," he warned.
The soldiers looked alert enough, their fingers on their triggers and eyes moving restlessly, but many of them were grinning. With the primal exultation of having come through an action alive, and with anticipation of the rarest pleasure of a soldier's life, the sack of an undamaged town. Two pounced on the groaning sniper and began frisking him for weapons, tying his hands behind his back; he shrieked as they wrenched at a dislocated shoulder, but it seemed to bring him back to consciousness. The trooper popped it back into place with rough efficiency.
"Off wit' yer, Mohammed," he said, pushing the prisoner toward the gate. "Any messages to yer wife? I'll be seein' 'er before you does!" Barking laughter. "Milio, put 'im in the pen."
Kaltin indicated the byplay with a jerk of his head. "Not much longer at all."
"Well, we'll just have to do it quickly, then, won't we?"
* * *
"—and that concludes this phase of the operation, except for finding the Caid. Where is the Caid?" Raj asked in frustration, lighting a cigarette. It had been the sort of action soldiers dreamed of in barracks, a rich town taken with negligible loss, but somehow his teeth were on edge.
The command group was meeting in the loggia of the mansion that had been owned by the Caid, the headman, of El Djem; a narrow, irregular cobbled triangle fronted it, with the mosque on one side and high-walled houses on the other. The Caid's was slightly different, with a sheltered verandah where he could address public meetings, give impromptu judgment, and right now the shade was welcome as the temperature built to its brain-frying noonday maximum. A rather informal type of governance, but this had not been a large town, no more than five thousand or so. It would have been convenient to have the chief administrator on hand for interrogation, but not essential.
"Probably hiding in a basement," Muzzaf said. The Komarite looked as tired as any of them, but more relaxed than he had been since they left the White City. "In any case, the Battalion has done well this day."
Raj nodded. Ten dead, which was derisory for a five-company action . . . except to the ten, of course, for whom it was infinitely significant.
"Double share for the fallen?" he said; everyone else nodded. The loot of a town taken by storm was the property of the troops, less the government's ten percent. Officers and noncoms shared half according to a complicated formula, and the rest went in equal shares to the ordinary soldiers, in Descott-recruited units. Double shares for casualties was more of a custom than a tradition; it would be delivered to the kin with the urn of ashes and the deceased's rifle, sword, and dog.
Across the way a group of troopers appeared on the flat roof of a building, manhandling a huge clay jar between them. They gave a shout of laughter as it arched out to shatter on the cobbles, spraying a flood of olive oil. The first sweep for obvious loot was over, and the proceeds under guard in the warehouses; the real value had been there to start with, anyway. Now came the "gleaning," when anything a man found was his own to take, or destroy. Odd the pleasure they get from smashing things,Raj thought. Like extravagance for its own sake, all the pleasure of being a spendthrift with none of the drawbacks.Grimly: They've earned it, or will, before this is over.Or the other dues of the victors; clumps of troopers waited by the steps of the mosque, grinning and pushing each other in rough dogplay as they waited. A sergeant stirred bits of paper around in his helmet, picked out one and read: "First Company, second platoon, third squad!" One of the clumps pushed their way forward. The mosque door opened, and a half-dozen young women were pushed out into the sunlight, blinking and cringing. A raw whoop lifted from the crowd, and the Colonist women flinched as if from a blow. One fainted as the squad rushed up the stairs to claim their prize, raising an ironic jeer from the spectators, and most of the others began to scream or whimper as the troopers lifted them in fireman's hoists or simply cuffed them along toward the unit's billet. Jovial shouts followed:
"Good luck, yer bullcocked bastards!"
"Show 'em why Descott girls is bowlegged!"
"Hey, Sandor! This mean yer gonna sell the ewe?"
That nearly started a fight, until friendly hands dragged the heckler away and Trooper Sandor had to make a dash to recover his prize, who made a break for the alleys through the laughing ranks of the Descotters. None of them paid any attention to Sandor's blasphemous calls to trip her; bets were called back and forth, and paid up as he closed a hand on her hair on the second circuit of the little plaza. He kept his hold on the long black tresses and bent her arm up behind her back in an efficient come-along hold, scowling at the mock-tender inquiries of his comrades who wondered aloud if he had the wind to do anything else but catch her.
"No, yer gets it and then comes!" someone said. "Plunder, then burn."
Muzzaf had been searching in the folds of his robe while the Companions idly watched the byplay.
"Ahh, yes," he said. "I have done a preliminary calculation . . . one thousand five hundred silver FedCreds. Per share."
Shocked silence fell.
"Sweet Avatars of the all-knowing Spirit," Gerrin said, at last. He turned and fisted Barton lightly on the shoulder. "War Academy for you in a year or two, my lad! We'll make a two-semester wonder of you."
Da Cruz moistened his lips, remembering a retirement due in five years.
"Squire Dorton said he'd rent Cazanegri Farm to a man who could stock it decent, it don't pay 'im to run it with a bailiff," he said meditatively.
"Don't price the unborn calf," Raj said, and they all spat and made the horn-sign. He eyed Muzzaf narrowly. "How do you figure that?"
The man from Komar smiled, almost his old salesman's grin, and produced a piece of paper. "These are the price estimates for the frankincense I found; this is a collection point for it . . . and I know a factor for the Church, in Kendrun, who will pay 93% of the East Residence price. The specie, the dinars, you can do better than turning them in to the Fisc for recoining—they use their own scales. There are merchants in Sandoral who will give you 3% above metal content, for the convenience in the Colonial trade. Slaves will be a glut in Komar, but—" he laid a finger alongside his nose "—your humble servant knows several mine and quarry firms that would be delighted to buy direct."
He continued down the list, and the soldiers looked at each other, uneasy. To yeoman and squire alike, it was a reversal of the natural order of things for mercantile skills to work to their benefit. Descott County's largest town was smaller than El Djem, and the merchants and factors there were mostly outsiders. Yet the Komarite had been one of the first over El Djem's wall . . .
"Commission for you?" Evrard said bluntly.
Muzzaf looked down, fiddling with the paper. "No," he said quietly. "I pay my debts." A shadow of his old grin: "In Messer Whitehall's service, I may do that, and profit well, and face far less boredom than I did before."
"Well," Raj said gently, and touched him on the shoulder. "I think we can spare you a full share, at least; we'll put your name on the rolls as a scout."
Muzzaf swallowed and looked away; it was a sign of acceptance, more than the money. He was still a wealthy man, with what he had been able to salvage from Komar and send west to the coastal city of Kendrun with his wife; her kindred would care for it.
Raj continued briskly, "Remind the men that we're moving out tomorrow, hangovers or no." Luckily a Muslim town wouldn't have much in the way of liquor. "We'll leave one platoon here, for base-of-communications work, and move east along the escarpment in column with two-squad units out to take the outlying farms. Master Sergeant, organize demolition squads from the duty Company, and start the prisoners on felling the orchards and destroying all pumps, wells, and irrigation canals."
Da Cruz nodded; there could be no defenses where men could not live, and they could not live far from the source of their food, not without navigable water to carry it. This raid would weaken the Colony's northwestern border for a generation or more; even then, restoring it would impose enormous expense.
"Ser," he said. "I'll have the date-palms felled an' piled about the orchards, day'r two and they'll burn enthusiastic-loik. Rubble an' bodies down the wells. Blast to cover the springs . . ."
"See to it. The servants and transport should be in by this afternoon. As soon as the ammunition is unloaded, get the prisoners coffled—" there were slavers travelling with the column, they followed war like scavenger birds behind a carnosauroid, and they would have the equipment "—fill every spare wagon and anything local with the loot, and we'll send it all back immediately. They can shuttle between here and Fort Blair while we're in the field; as we move east, everything can be sent back here and staged north in relays. The Colony semaphore net will get the news to the Drangosh Valley soon enough, and I want to keep us mobile as possible."
"Consider it done, ser."
"Oh, and turn captured dogs and weapons over to the servants," Raj said. "They won't be any use for fighting, but they can plunder and burn well enough, which is our job right now."
"We'll start pulling back as soon as we meet the 2nd, cleaning up the southern rim as we go." The basin that held El Djem was a flattened oval lying east-west; the bulk of the habitations were on the north edge, where artesian springs were most abundant. A lesser scattering rimmed the southern edge; the water that seeped to the surface in the low center of the playa was too salty for food crops, but it supported rich spicebush plantations. "When the last load's assembled here—or sooner, depending—we pull back to Fort Blair and then Komar, mission accomplished. Understood?"
Gerrin was lounging against a pillar. "Good, provided the enemy cooperates."
"Mought wish they wouldn't, ser," da Cruz said. "New draft, I'd admire to see how they shape under some weight."
M'lewis spoke up unexpectedly, from where he sat crouched on his haunches trimming a hangnail with his skinning knife. "Mebbe so," he said. The others looked at him, and he responded with a shifty, snaggle-toothed smile. "Summat of the newlies, they thinkin' Messer Captain's a luck-piece, turn bullets to water. Foin while it lasts, make 'em take chances, though, mebbe turn arse when the red wine's served for really."
"Not much we can do about that," Raj said, pushing back the shimmering vision of a firing-line dissolving as men ran, abandoning their comrades . . . no, abandoning strangers they had not learned to depend on, officers they did not know enough to trust. Raj knew his own motivations, knew that he would carry out his mission whatever the consequences, but he would not have been an effective leader if he did not realize that most soldiers were governed by different imperatives.
Somewhere in the building behind them wood crashed. Voices shouted, in a yelping exultant falsetto, "Aur! Aur!"
"Spirit of Man of the Stars," Kaltin muttered. "It's those damned irregulars again. Bloody weasels in a henhouse."
Raj sighed wearily, rubbing a hand over his face and unbuckling his helmet. Tepid sweat trickled greasily from the cork and sponge lining. "They've been willing to listen to reason, somewhat," he said.
"Summat, ser," M'lewis added, "after the boys told 'em what they thought of spoilin' loot." The officers nodded; their Descotters could be a trifle rough—they were soldiers, after all, not schoolgirls on an outing—but they were good lads at heart. "Got a good nose for hidey-holes, true told, once they blood's cooled a bit. Few of the kaypadros were goin' around with them, gleanin'-loik."
More crashing, the rhythmic sound of metal on wood. Then another chorus of screams, women's voices among them this time; a single shot, and a brief clash of steel. Shouts, the shrill yelping of the borderers and deep-chested Descotter bellows.
"Well, I think that's the Caid in his little hideaway," Evrard said, looking around and through the unshuttered floor-to-ceiling windows. "But damned—"
Raj looked back; the irregulars were kicking an elderly man along, one dressed in an expensive-looking robe. His beard was dyed green, sign of one who had made the pilgrimage to the Holy City of Sinar; where the first ships from Old Earth had landed, bearing a fragment of the Ka'bah from the ruins of burning Mecca. They swung open-handed blows at him, spitting in his face; one ripped out a handful of the beard. The Caid cried out, a prayer in Arabic.
"—if there's going to be much left."
The borderers were shouting as well:
"This for our priest you flayed in his church—
"Scream, dog! Scream as my brother did when the Bedouin burned him alive!"
Raj slapped a hand against the fluted limestone of the pillar beside him. "Well, they didn't have to volunteer," he said. The irregulars were invaluable at raid-and-ambush work, and they were certainly fighting men . . . but they were not any sort of soldiers, and the ones who'd come this far into hostile country were likely to have exceptional motivation.
Ripping cloth, and more breathless cries of pain and fear. A jeering borderman's voice, "These are your bitches, dog? Hai, an old dog like you doesn't need them!"
He glanced in through the windows again. The Caid was down on hands and knees, and one of the irregulars was sitting on his back as if on a riding dog, slashing behind him with the Caid's own ceremonial nine-thonged whip of authority. The jagged pieces of steel on the ends of the thongs were fully functional as well as symbolic, however. Spirit of Man, what a way to make a living,Raj thought with weary disgust.
"This dog won't answer to the lash," the "rider" joked.
"A cull-dog!" somebody else laughed, darting in with the sleeve of his robe rolled back and a knife in his hands. "Cull-dogs must be castrated."
The commanders did not precisely look away, but there was no particular need to watch what was effectively out of their control. Thus they missed the first flicker of movement through the doors, and nobody heard the slap of bare feet on the sandstone floor because the Caid's dying scream was loud enough to stun their ears for a second. It did not last long; a man whose testicles have been completely severed bleeds out into unconsciousness quite quickly. Barton Foley was startled enough to jump backward with a yell as the girl ran into him, head down. He shouted, his voice cracking; the girl gave a breathless shriek, staring about wildly as weapons were returned to scabbards and holsters. Her hands stayed gripped in the harness of Ensign Foley's shoulder-strapped baldric. A torn-open vest was her only clothing apart from the thick hair that fell past her waist; she looked to be about sixteen, plumply pretty in the Arab fashion.
Boots rang on the stone behind her, not the soft-soled gear the irregulars wore. The first trooper out onto the veranda had a bayonet in his hand and his rifle slung muzzle-down across his back; four deep fingernail gouges ran across his face, and from the wide fixed stare he was fully aware that he had just missed having one eye scooped out to dangle on his cheek.
"The bitch," he said, in a strangely distant voice, panting. "The bitchcunt, we had 'er down, she clawed me, I'm gonna cut 'er four ways,the bitch."
The girl ignored Foley's tentative attempts to push her away. When the trooper started forward she swung herself behind the young Descotter, gripping his harness again and holding him like a shield in front of her with hysterical strength, jumping up with hair billowing to shout Arabic curses and spit at the trooper over his shoulder. Frustrated, the soldier checked his rush just as his weight was going onto the balls of his feet and tried to angle around the younger man, snatching with his free hand.
Gerrin Staenbridge moved sideways, putting his palm over the girl's mouth. She tried to bite; the big hand clamped, and he barked two words in Arabic that left her standing silent except for the quick gasping of her breath. The trooper with the bayonet hardly seemed to notice.
"Get out a my ways,pretty boy," he snarled.
Foley freed his shoulders with a jerk, straightened and set hands on hips, looking down his thin hooked nose.
"What was that, trooper?" he drawled, in a tone reminiscent of Captain Staenbridge's on inspection days.
The man blinked, looked around. A little of the glazed look faded from his eyes, and he straightened. The point of the bayonet turned down towards the ground, and his left hand fumbled automatically at the undone buttons of his jacket.
"Ah, beggin' yer pardon, ser," he said, making a sloppy salute. "That cunt, she's mine. We got 'er." Three more troopers had followed the first: one was limping, and another sucking at the ball of his thumb where sharp teeth had taken out a thimble-sized lump of flesh. "Jest step aside, ser, and we'll take care of it."
Foley cast a glance back at the fear-wide eyes of the girl and then helplessly at Staenbridge. The older man stepped closer and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"I don't think so, soldier," he said smoothly. "There's plenty more over in the mosque, and less menace to your eyes."
The trooper's fingers tightened on the bayonet, and he began shaking again with frustration and the terror of near-blinding transmuted into rage.
"Ser, it's gleanin's,it's our right."That was dangerous, when a Descott man started to talk of his rights. "An' beggin' yer pardon, ser, but what the fuck do yer two want wit' 'er?"
Staenbridge relaxed, pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket and offered one to the soldier with a smile, not ignoring the gap in rank but treating the matter as between one fighting man and another. The trooper took it awkwardly in one hand, then had to sheath his bayonet to light it.
"Look, soldier . . . Trooper Hylio Henyarson, isn't it? Mamorres parish?" The man had blue eyes, rare anywhere and almost unheard of in Descott County. He nodded, and the Senior Lieutenant continued: "Do you like wine?"
"Ci, ferrementi, seyor,"the trooper said, bewildered: "Yes, of course, ser."
"Slyowtz?"An enthusiastic nod; the plum brandy was by way of a Descotter national drink.
"Nao,it leaves a funny taste at 't back a me throat, ser."
"But you drink it now and then?"
"Well, of course, ser—" The trooper stopped with his mouth open, frowning in dissatisfaction and visibly searching for an answer, as the officer indicated the girl with a silent well, then.While he thought, Gerrin bent and pulled two bottles from the personal gear piled on the edge of the verandah; they were half-liter, of thick green glass with lithographed labels bearing the outline of a spray of plum blossom, sealed with wired corks and wax.
"Tell you what, soldier . . . I'll trade you for her."
"Holy Avatars of the Spirit," one of the troopers behind Hylio whispered, licking his lips.
Holdor Tennan straightened up from his seat on the verandah railing and put companionable arms around the shoulders of two of the others. "Hey, dog-brothers," he said, "I happen to know Sergeant Salton over there at the mosque is keeping some of the best back for last, and for a couple of hits of that liquor, with a little persuasion . . ."
Hylio looked back at his friends, whose eyes were fixed on the bottles; Slyowtz and a woman each were obviously looking a lot more appealing than sloppy seconds after him and a grudge-producing pissing match with a company commander. They might have backed him anyway, on principle, but the bottles were a face-saving gesture for Hylio and a generous one at that, showing a commander careful of his men's honor.
"Ah, crash and coredump 'er," he said. "They're all pink insides, anyhow. Watch the nails, ser."
"But . . . but Gerrin,"Foley said. "What will we do with her?" The girl had backed up against a pillar, one hand holding her vest closed and the other spread over her crotch.
Staenbridge smiled fondly at him, but spoke to the girl first, in slow careful Arabic, hands moving to indicate where the troopers had stood, and then the mosque. She swallowed and nodded, glancing back and forth between him and Foley, then accepted a cloak from the older man's hands.
"Continue your education, Barton dear," he said, laying an affectionate arm around the youth's shoulders. "After all, you'll need to marry and carry on your family name, someday, so you need to know something of women: I get along quite well with my wife, one week every six months when I'm back in the County. First lesson, don't hurt them; honey catches more flies than vinegar, and there's no rush."
He nodded pleasantly to the other Companions. "See you later, gentlemen. Come, Fatima." Foley's ears were red to the tips as they walked away toward their billet.
Discipline was essential, but so were aggression and self-confidence; that was why the elite of the Civil Government's army was recruited from places like Descott County, or from the barbaricum beyond the frontiers, rather than the spirit-broken peons of the central provinces. Men trained to kill, and proud enough to advance into fire rather than admit fear, were never easy to control.
"Frankly, I'm a bit surprised," Evrard said.
"You didn't know Gerrin when we were stationed on the western border, Evvie," Kaltin replied.
Da Cruz spat meditatively out into the plaza. "Messer Staenbridge knows his business," the senior noncom said. "But he needs sommone t'point him in the general direction, loik. Or he lets things slide a little at a time, and goes mean with it." He dusted off the thighs of his uniform, saluted. "You knows how to work with him.ser."
"Think I'll do a tour of the vedettes," Kaltin said. "Keep their minds off how all their buddies are drinking and fucking while they roast in the sun."
Antin M'lewis watched the others depart, all but the Captain; he stayed, standing with his arms crossed and watching out over the captured hamlet as if he were seeing visions. Don't cross 'im,the man from Bufford parish reminded himself. There was something spooky about the young commander, but he knew how to reward good service . . . and to punish. Just as well to hitch your cart to a rising star; it would never be dull, he decided, and possibly very profitable indeed. Not safe, of course, but then neither would staying home have been, shovelling muck and branding cattle and likely as not ending with iron in his belly for something truly stupid: a cuckold mocked at a feast, a moved boundary stone, straying stock.
He reached into a pouch and fingered the dice, looking meditatively at the mosque. Headquarters noncom billet there . . . and him a new-minted corporal. The dice flicked up into the air. M'lewis decided he could wait for the women; not that he didn't like a piece as well as the next, but he was no three-ball man, and in his experience they didn't grow shut again. It had been a source of amazement to him for years how mellow, how suggestible, how trusting men were right after they'd had their ashes hauled. Probably they'd just love a friendly game.
His hand caught the carved bone at the top of its curve, with a motion like a trout rising to a fly. Tomorrow they'd be back in the hot sun . . .