Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake

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Chapter Eight

The army of the Civil Government was a moving city as it marched north along the coast road; a rippling pattern of human organization, transforming the landscape as it passed, like a weather-front. There was a shudder ahead of it, a froth of Squadron refugees lucky or canny enough to abandon everything but ready cash and spur their dogs toward Port Murchison. Many even of those met roving bands of Skinners and died, on the inland western flank. Next came the scouts, mounted and moving by half-squads at a steady wolf-trot, probing at gullies and woods, sniffing around the outskirts of Squadron manors and farms. Information flowed back to the main body, and the first most of the enemy knew of the army was the arrival of a raiding-column of cavalry. Dun clubs of smoke marked the spots of resistance, towering up into the hot cloudless sky; that and livestock, wagonloads of household goods, and the dwellers roped neck-and-neck as they moved back to the main column. Those willing to submit and swear allegiance to the Civil Government were left their lives and property, except for arms, riding dogs, and wagons. A third of their lands would be forfeit later, but that was for peacetime.

The main body moved like a hub at the center of those spokes, spokes carrying inward plunder and produce brought for sale by native peasants, outward scouts and well-paid emissaries promising good treatment for those who surrendered. The coast road ran north through rolling plain scarred by the odd gully, mostly wheat and barley stubble with the odd patch of woodland, orchard, or vineyard; most farmers lived behind walls in tight-packed villages. An observer waiting in the road would have seen lines through the heat-shimmer of late afternoon, first marked by pillars of dust.

Those became company columns of cavalry, spaced out at regular intervals a half-kilometer or so across the line of march; blue of uniforms, dun-brown of dogs, the long formations wiggling a little as the animals instinctively kept to the level. An occasional glitter marked them—the star at the point of a pennant, the brass guard of a saber—but mostly they were faded to the color of the earth they crossed. At a walking pace the feet of the dogs were only a muffled thudding scuff. Louder was a clatter of metal buckles on harness, the steady bang of scabbards on stirrup-irons, an occasional hoarse command. The men rode with an easy swaying slouch, but they were alert enough; the cavalry would deploy to screen the rest of the column if an attack came. More mounted units flanked the road on the vulnerable western side; everyone knew the Skinners were supposed to be out there somewhere, but nobody was going to stake their lives on it. Galloper-guns with eight-dog hitches followed, a three-gun battery to every five companies, ready to wheel about and form a firing line.

Behind the mounted men came the foot-soldiers, marching by battalions, eating the outriders' dust. They were grouped three battalions abreast, one on either side of the ditch and one on the road; ten thousand men would have stretched forever, lined up like beads on a string. Rifles on one shoulder, blanket-roll over the other, they moved with a swing born of short marches and good rations. Six hours into the day the drummer-boys had fallen into a common beat, and the ten battalions at the head of the column were singing:

"Sojer boy be full a' fight—sojer boy be randy:
Mind the drumbeat—mind the step
And with the girls be handy—"

The command group followed them, in a dust-cloud still more dense; behind shambled the mass of the wheeled transport and camp followers. More guns, dogs panting wearily; the heavy mortars on their ox-drawn carriages; wagons with tools and tents and ammunition and provender; herds of cattle and sheep and bleating goats; several small, heavily guarded carts carrying iron-strapped chests of coin and high-value plunder . . . And the army's civilians: Priest-doctors and Renunciate nun medicos in their ambulance-clinics, cavalry troopers' servants afoot, officers' valets, sutlers, the loot-fences and slave-traders who followed war the way the vultures did, girls picked up in the days since the landing, enlisted men's wives smuggled aboard the transports against all regulations, the odd officer's lady on her palfrey. The mounted guards who chivvied them on had standing orders that anyone who couldn't keep up was to be kicked out of the line and left. That was no problem with most who had followed the drum before, but all too many straggled and sprawled and chattered, as chaotic as the livestock and harder to manage. Then the remainder of the infantry—four thousand men—and behind them the cavalry screen.

"They're shaping well," Raj said critically, lowering his binoculars.

Then he looked around; he and his trumpeters and bannermen and messengers were on a slight rise half a kilometer to the east of the road. Men in the red-striped blue trousers of the artillery were laying out a camp with pegs and rope; five hundred meters to a side, with diamond-shaped bastions at each corner, and a regular gridiron of streets within centered on an open square. Spots were allocated for each unit, for the dog-lines, for the infirmary and the knockdown shrines that housed the battalion standards, for the camp-followers and the wagon park and the latrines. There was a little stream nearby, still flowing, that would do for water; woodlots stood conveniently near, but not close enough to give an enemy shelter.

"This is a nice little piece of work, too," Raj went on. He mopped his face with the orange, red, and black checkered bandanna of the 5th and opened his canteen. Any Civil Government officer was supposed to be able to do basic surveying and lay out fieldworks, but the artillery did it better, no doubt of that. "Water?"

"Thanks, sir," the artillery major said, lighting a cigarette. "We've all had four days' practice. Not that it's a forced march, either."

Raj grinned at the hint and looked at his watch: 1600 hours. "I have my reasons," he said. Center painted a map across his sight, distances and times. Six kilometers a day since they landed. They were only a day and a half from Port Murchison . . . . "It's an excellent regulation that the army has to entrench every night on hostile ground; they used to say barbarians were more easily defeated by seeing us go into camp than by fighting us. I intend to see it's strictly enforced.

"Trumpeter," he went on. "Sound attention."

Everyone was expecting it; the column fell silent except for the jackdaw-chatter of the civilians and one tapping drum per battalion. The avalanche sound of thousands of bootheels slamming down echoed across deserted countryside.

"Sound general halt."

A more complex rhythm: ta-ra-ta-ra-ta-rarara-ta-ra, twice repeated. Unit trumpets sounded to relay it, and shouted commands for smaller groups. The halt began at the rear of the column, the only way to prevent people running into the heels of the men ahead; it rippled down the long line of humans, dogs, and vehicles like a wave through a pond. A second ripple as the infantry units called slope arms and stand at the easy; multiple rattle of hands on iron and wood, then the thudding of butt-plates on dirt or gravel. There was a slow-motion traffic pileup among the transport and camp-followers, but that was to be expected.

"And fall out to quarters, if you please."

What followed was almost as complex as a dance, along a front of nearly two thousand meters. The cavalry screens closed in to group by battalions and then stood to in three directions around the campsite, acting as an outer guard. The infantry battalions marched off the road at a trot with their rifles at the trail, and swung into the campsite by the notional gates in each string-marked wall. Standardbearers and officers trotted down the streets to their assigned sectors. The men halted, dispersed to drop most of their gear on their squad plots, then three-quarters of them formed up stripped to the waist, with only rifle, bayonet, and bandolier. Each company hurried at the same jog-trot to its assigned sector of wall; by the time it arrived, wagons had dropped offloads of shovels, picks, and baskets.

Raj looked at his watch: 1620, and the first spadefuls of earth were flying. In another ten minutes nine thousand men would be working; hours before sunset there would be a ditch two meters deep and precisely two meters wide around the entire camp. Inside that would be a steep-sided embankment the height of a tall man: working parties of camp followers were being shepherded to the nearest patches of wood—for fuel, and for the stakes that would be rammed into the top of the mound and woven together with brush. Guns went by below, headed out to the bastions; emplaced there, they could shoot outward, or rake any side of the square with enfilading fire. Hammers sounded on tent-pegs all across the camp; a more musical sound cut in, cavalrymen driving in the metal rods that anchored the picket-lines of dogs for the night. A file of them went by, trotting behind a single handler and standing in a well-trained row while he snapped their bridle-chains to the wire cable stretched between the steel posts.

Latrines, fire-pits, field kitchens, water-barrels at set intervals . . .

"That reminds me," Raj said. "Da Cruz, no drinking the water from the stream, or barrels until they've been blessed." The priests used a ritual with a short prayer and a sprinkling of chlorine powder.

The senior noncom nodded. "If ye order, ser," he said.

Raj half-turned in the saddle. "Meaning I wasn't always so superstitious, Top?" He shrugged. "Let's say a little voice told me it'd be a good idea. Haven't had many down with the squirts, have we?"

Diarrhea was no joke in an army: it killed. More men than bullets, when you took them into an area with strange food and uncertain water, even if it didn't bother the locals.

"No, ser." He saluted and wheeled off. Dinnalsyn flicked away the butt of his cigarette and chuckled.

"They didn't call you the King of Spades, either, a while ago—but I'm not objecting," he said. "I remember Sandoral—if there's one thing worse than sitting in a hole while someone shells you, it's not having a hole when someone shells you. Ah, our brothers in arms."

The battalion commanders were riding up, some of them with a few of their subordinates. Dalhouse looked to have brought all his company commanders and most of the Lieutenants. The Cuirassiers had a little polished ceremonial breastplate on their tunics, a reminder of the time when they had worn back-and-breast armor. To Raj it had always seemed a curious habit in a combat zone—rather like hanging a shoot me here sign on your chest—but Dalhouse swore by the tradition. His crony Hingenio Buthelezi of the 1st Gaur Rangers was with him.

The officers reined in and saluted; Raj answered it and leaned forward with both hands on his pommel.

"Excellent work, Messers," he said. "We'll have sunset service at 1900, reveille at 0600, then, if I give the order—there may be a change of plans depending on fresh intelligence—we'll demolish the camp"—there was no point in leaving a usable fortress right behind them—"and make another day's march."

"Sir." Dalhouse made the word a half-insult; but then, his voice usually seemed to have that tone of throttled impatience, a you fool to all the world. The tips of his mustache were still waxed, and they quivered as he flung an arm northward. "Do you intend to stop and camp with four hours of daylight remaining?"

Raj let his eyes rest on the thousands of men entrenching the army, then looked back to Dalhouse.

"Yes, Messer Major, that's more or less my intention." Somebody coughed to hide a chuckle.

"Sir, we're moving like a collection of old women on washday! Every barbarian in two hundred kilometers will know we're here; they're already stripping their estates of stock and goods before we get there."

"Well, Major Dalhouse . . ." Raj went on, with a slight smile, pausing to light a cigarette. Who I would strip of his command and bust back to East Residence if I could, he thought wistfully. Far too influential for that, worse luck.

The match went scritch between thumb and forefinger. " . . . this isn't a razziah or a slave-raid, you know. It's a campaign of conquest."

"How are we supposed to bloody conquer them if we don't fight the sons of whores? We spend all our time digging dirt like peons. You—" He reconsidered. "We're giving them time to concentrate."

Raj looked behind Dalhouse at his junior officers.

tell them, Center said, as i told you. some of them will listen and learn.

As I listened and finally learned, Raj thought dryly. After arguing for a swift thrust at Port Murchison, because I'm so afraid of crawling along, waiting to be hit with everything the Squadron has. . . .

"Exactly, Major," Raj went on aloud. "Exactly. My actions are quite precisely calculated to make them fight; at a time and place and in a manner of my choosing, not theirs. I'm giving them enough time to mobilize some of their strength, and not enough to gather all of it. Making them come to us in bite-sized chunks, as it were.

"You see," he went on, making a spare gesture with the hand that held the cigarette; it trailed a curve of blue smoke. "We of the Civil Government have the most disciplined army in the world; apart from the Colony, the only disciplined army on earth."

bellevue, said Center.

"The strength of that discipline is that it provides for a series of set contingencies of battle, but no drill can cover all the possibilities. So it behooves us to avoid the ones that aren't provided for, does it not? Our army is a battlefield army; all its weapons and its training are for set-piece battles in open country, where volley-fire and formation count. Its great weaknesses are close-quarter ambush and night attack; you may note, Major, that I'm carefully avoiding the possibility of either."

He indicated the pillar of smoke that marked a Squadron farm in the middle distance.

"By advancing slowly on their capital and scorching the earth, we accomplish three things. Some of their chiefs will surrender, to spare their estates. Others will try to pressure their Admiral into a premature attack on us, also to spare their estates—and he can't afford to alienate too many of them. This is the richest land in the Southern Territories; the most influential nobles own it. And thirdly, we make the Admiral fear native uprising and a siege of Port Murchison—not that I intend to besiege it. The fortifications aren't modern, but we don't have a siege train—and sure as a tax-farmer grafts, if we sat down to siege we'd get a visit from Corporal Forbus."

Cholera morbus; a few of the men winced. A close-packed camp in hot weather was an invitation to it.

observe said Center:

* * *

and rows of men lay on pallets soaked in feces. They shook, and their faces had the fallen-in look of famine victims. Flies crawled over them in sheets; Raj saw one man too weak to blink as they walked over his eyeballs, although his chest still rose and fell. Renunciates in soiled white jumpsuits and overrobes went down the rows, trying to make the victims drink; water mixed with sugar and salt was the only thing that did cholera victims any good, that and the careful nursing that they could not give so many—

and Raj watched from a mound as the armies closed in on both sides of a fortified siege-camp; the Squadron host from landward, a huge mass of men and metal that surged in disorderly dots from horizon to horizon, the whole land-levy of the enemy. On the other side stood the walls of Port Murchison, old-fashioned curtain and tower built but cored in concrete and faced with huge granite blocks, immune to the pecking of his fieldpieces. The gates opened, and out poured another army itself larger than his, the garrison of the town and Commodore Curtis Auburn back from Stern Island with the elite of the barbarian armies, moving to some sort of coordinated command. Viewpoint-Raj looked down. The parapets were thinly manned, units at half-strength or less. As he watched one man collapsed, knees too weak to hold up his weight even leaning against the firing ledge, and nobody moved to aid him . . . .

* * *

probability of serious epidemic 80% ±, 6%, Center said, probability of city surrendering to siege before return of Stern Island force 6% ± 2%. probability of decisive results from siege operations, too low to calculate meaningfully.

Raj blinked back to awareness, shocked as always at how little time had passed. Dalhouse was talking:

"—so how do we know the garrison will come out? Or that the Admiral will attack before he's reunited his forces?"

"Two reasons, besides the ones I've listed," Raj said, holding up his fist. He raised a finger. "First, because the Squadron are barbarians, who think like children—like thirteen-year-old boys, really. Honor demands they attack at once; glory and fame to those in the forefront, eternal shame to the laggard; they'll overthrow the Admiral if he doesn't lead them to battle, and he knows it. They haven't had any real wars to temper it with common sense lately, either. Second." He raised another finger. "What time of year is it, Major?"

Dalhouse blinked bewilderment. Raj swung an arm to indicate the harvested fields.

"Wheat and barley and beans, Major, a holy trinity like the Christo's. All cut, and carted to the villages, and stacked—hence easy to burn—but not threshed or bagged, and certainly not carried into Port Murchison. I doubt they have a year's reserve on hand, either."

The officers nodded unconsciously; even absentee landlords who visited their estates only to hunt, collect rents, and lay the odd peon girl knew that threshing grain was the longest task in the farm calendar; not time-pressured like harvesting, either. A well-thatched stack would keep the grain safe for half a year, rain or no, so you threshed it a bit at a time, as the other demands of the land allowed. A few of the best-managed estates near East Residence had simple ox-powered threshing machines—more of an affectation than anything, with labor so cheap—but such would be unknown here. They had all seen signs of neglect on the march, old irrigation channels allowed to silt, fields left to grow back in ruddy native scrub. Yet the Southern Territories still exported grain in most years, apart from the odd dearth or famine such as any area suffered, so reserves must be low.

"So," Raj finished gently, "it's easy to support a moving army—there was a reason for attacking this time of year, Major—but even the Squadron leaders aren't going to cram fifty or sixty thousand people and thirty thousand dogs into a city living on what's left of last year's yield. Not when they think their mighty warriors can crush our little band; after all, they won last time, didn't they?"

Dalhouse was silent for a moment. "Sir—what if you're wrong?"

"This isn't a safe profession, you know. If I'm wrong, we all die. And now, Messers, I think we should attend to the men."

* * *

"Spirit, Raj, you could have fired a locomotive by sticking Messer Bloody Dalhouse in the boiler and letting the steam coming out of his ears do the work," Kaltin Gruder said.

A guffaw ran around the table in the command tent. All the Companions were there, and Ehwardo Poplanich—it suddenly occurred to Raj that he might be sliding into that category too. Poor bastard. They were sitting Colonist-style on cushions around a wicker table; a sauroid somebody's men had shot was the centerpiece, a local biped grazer about man-size, with a head like a sheep and a feathered ruff around its neck. It had been baked in a temporary earth-oven with strips of bacon over the back, and the crackling skin had covered succulent flaky white meat, ranging to brown on the haunches. Bowls of new potatoes swimming in butter flanked it, with fresh piles of fresh flatbread and olives and a salad of greens; the main course had been reduced to hacked remnants, and they were all leaning back with fruit and cheese and another glass of the local wine. The whole army was living well, from plundered storehouses, or what they bought from the peasants with plundered goods. The main supply problem was keeping the men from getting their hands on too much booze, which they would drink if they could.

It's a bloody military picnic, so far, Raj thought. None of the Companions expected it to last, of course . . . but there was no use borrowing grief beforehand when you knew it was coming down the pike. M'lewis seemed mostly concerned about his table manners at a Messer-class gathering, fairly futile since most of the others were resting their boots on the table or spearing bits out of bowls with their daggers.

Gruder, M'lewis, and Tejan M'brust had brought along the girls Reggiri had given them. Joni, Mitchi, and Karli, of Stalwart stock captured young; they all spoke Sponglish and had been given a social education. Fatima was there as well. She and Barton were throwing clandestine peach-pits at each other across a recumbent and indulgent-looking Staenbridge. It reminded Raj that young Foley was still a little shy of eighteen. It also reminded him that Suzette was not there; she was dining with Berg and his cronies. Berg's feathers had come unruffled since Stern Isle; Berg was seeing less of Dalhouse, and Dalhouse and Berg together had far too much pull at Court . . .

To the Starless Dark with it.

"Come on, Mekkle," he said to the young Descotter; Mekkle Thiddo was silent, looking at an opened locket. His wife of one year was back in the County, pregnant according to the latest letter, that having been suspected but uncertain when he left. "You're the honeymooner—give us Road to Santanerr." Ehwardo looked a little alarmed; that was a very old tune in the Civil Government's army, and officially strictly forbidden. Then he shrugged.

"Hole, Mekkle—start us off!" he yelled, leaning back and loosening his collar.

Well, at least here Ehwardo gets to relax without looking under the rug for Barholm's spies, Raj acknowledged. Even if the life-expectancy of Companions was not very good.

"Hadelande, dhude!" Gerrin called. Go for it, youngster! He reclined sultanic on a pile of the cushions, with a head on each shoulder.

Thiddo grinned and ducked a half-eaten apricot. "On your own heads—and eardrums," he said, and threw back his head to sing in a strong young baritone:

"When I left home for Lola's sake—
By the Army road to Santanerr
She vowed her heart was mine to take
With me and my sword to Santanerr
Till our banners flew from Santanerr—
And I've tramped the desert—and Sandoral
And the Diva's banks where the snow-flakes fall
As white as the smile of Lola—
As cold as the heart of Lola!
And I've lost the desert, and Sandoral,
And I've lost home and worst of all,
I've lost Lola!"

From his place at the head of the table Raj could see down to the west gate of the camp, and north along the coast road. From the edge of sight northward a shuttered lantern blinked. That was where the main cavalry picket guarded the approach from the north; from Port Murchison, among other places. Party—escort—embassy—truce flag, he read. The gate acknowledged: Proceed. Two lights glowed, bobbing as the embassy rode southward with a squad of the cavalry to guard them. It was probably some Squadron noble looking to save his skin. Amazing how these pirates turned meek when the devastation showed up on their own doorsteps. Old Admiral Geyser Ricks, the conqueror of the Southern Territories, must be spinning in his marble-and-gold mausoleum.

They all joined in:

"When you go by the Cantina Bellica
As thousands have travelled before,
Remember the Luck of the Soldier
Who never saw home any more!
Oh, dear was the lover who kissed him
And dear was the mother that bore;
But then they found his sword in the heather,
And he never saw home any more!"

The torches reached the gate, and paused for challenge and response. They spurred up the long shallow incline, up the main cross-avenue of the camp to the open space before the commander's tent. Raj raised an eyebrow; they were cantering at least. Something must have impressed them, and Civil Government regular cavalry were generally not easily impressed by barbs. The troopers pacing guard outside the open tent door were fighting back grins; the song everyone inside was roaring out was a flogging offense, officially—and the next verse was the reason. No Governor liked it, especially the ones who shot their way onto the Chair:

"When you go by the Cantina Bellica
from the City to Sandoral,
Remember the Luck of the Soldier
Who rose to be master of all!
He carried the rifle and saber,
He stood his watch and rode tall,
Till the Army hailed him Governor
And he rose to be master of all!"

A jingling and flash of bright metal in the square; he could see the dark forms of the Regulars around the jewel and gold brightwork of the barbarians. The officer of the guard ducked into the tent and bent to talk to Muzzaf Kerpatik. Raj raised his glass in an ironic toast; he had given the Komarite the job of compiling a list of Squadron notables. He had done it with smooth efficiency, drawing on his commercial contacts; right now he looked more interested in staring sideways at Joni, M'lewis's new concubine. She was leaning back on one elbow in a way that did interesting things with the front of her sheer linen blouse. . . . Duty calls, he thought

The voices rose to a bellow:

"It's twenty-five marches to Payso
It's forty-five more to Ayaire
And the end may be death in the heather
Or life on the Governor's Chair
But whether the Army obeys us,
Or we serve as some sauroid's fare
I'd rather be Lola's lover
Than sit on the Governor's Chair!"

Muzzaf came back in; his face was like a bucket of cold water amid the shouts of laughter. He bent down to whisper into the commander's ear, and Raj came erect like an uncoiling spring. Silence spread outward. "Messers, I think we'd better bid the ladies goodnight," he said.

* * *

"You're Ludwig Bellamy?" Raj said in Spanjol.

The barbarian noble stepped forward: He was young, no more than twenty, taller by a hand than the general's 190 centimeters, broad-shouldered and handsome in a thin-nosed blond way: His hair was in braids tied at the right, and the back of his head shaved in the old Squadron style, but he had only the beginnings of a beard. The retainers behind him were scarred men in their thirties, looking naked without the flintlocks and long swords. The younger man's empty scabbards and belts looked to be worth the price of a thousand Merino sheep, and the fringed leather jacket was sewn with platinum sequins.

"Ci, heneral-hefe Whitehall," he said in excellent court Sponglish: Yes, Supreme General Whitehall. "Ludwig Bellamy este, mi, elto spreyt d'Karl Bellamy, ho esten gran Capetain do sojadas marihenos en afilo d' Ahmiral Rick, Ispirito Persona dondi fahor on el": I am Ludwig Bellamy, oldest son of Karl Bellamy, who is Senior Captain of Marines, descended of Admiral Rick, upon whom be the blessings of the Spirit of Man.

Ludwig licked his lips; his eyes did not dart to the shadowed figures of the Civil Government soldiers around them. "Perhaps, Messer General, this is not the place?"

Raj smiled grimly, left hand resting on the hilt of his saber. This place would do quite well, with the light from the tent behind him casting his shadow over young Bellamy's face. Raj would be a featureless silhouette, with all the ordered sleeping power of the encampment behind him. Karl Bellamy, he thought. About fifth from the top in the Squadron hierarchy, fantastically rich, personal lord of thousands of armed Squadron vassals and tens of thousands of native peons, warships, merchantmen, mines, slaves, herds . . . and father of only two legitimate sons, by Muzzaf's account. This one matched the description in the files, down to the crooked left finger that had healed wrong after being broken in a hunting accident.

"This will do quite well," he said. He carefully refrained from offering refreshment, which would make the noble feel he had the quasi-sacred status of a guest. "I take it your father—if you are who you say—wishes to make obeisance to the Civil Government of Holy Federation?"

Ludwig paled. "That is, Messer General—Your Excellency—we were given to understand—"

"—that those who surrender unconditionally will have their lives and most of their estates spared," Raj completed. "In a word, yes. But loyalty must be proved, and proved in person. I won't treat with an emissary. Let him come himself."

The Squadron noble closed his eyes for a second, gathering strength. "Messer General, you must understand . . . these things take time—"

"If he hasn't surrendered by the time we reach him, his life and lands are forfeit," Raj interrupted brutally. "We have a saying in the Civil Government: time to crap or get off the pot."

A sigh and a nod. "Yes, of course. Messer Whitehall, my father—you see, if there is any suspicion by the usurper Admiral . . . Well, my father waits at a manor not three kilometers from here. He has with him only a dozen of his most faithful guards; come with as many men as you like, Messer Whitehall. We have more than submission to offer. We have vital information, most vital to the progress of your campaign."

Raj stood for a moment, his eyes probing the other man while his mind raced. This is Bellamy's land we're on . . . and Bellamy would know a great deal of his monarch's plans; the Squadron mobilized for war by sending a summons to the chief nobles, who called out their followers in turn.

"Get our guest a cup of wine!" he called. Bellamy's shoulders slumped a little in unconscious relief; the veterans behind him kept the same silent cornered-carnosauroid tenseness. "I'm afraid we can't offer more, since we'll be returning immediately."

He turned on his heel and walked back to the open flap of the tent.

"M'lewis," he rapped out. "Turn out your dog-thieves; I have some scouting for you. Gerrin, I want the 5th by the west gate in battle order in fifteen minutes, if you please. The rest of you—Companions, I suggest you get some sleep; I'll be back in a couple of hours—battalion commanders' meeting at 0300. Then there are likely to be happenings tomorrow."

A wolfish growl swirled past him, to where the barbarians waited under the Descotter guns.

* * *


Raj looked down, slightly startled. M'lewis had appeared out of nowhere, at the entrance to the Bellamy kasgrane's gardens; his face was blackened, but the gold teeth shone. It was dark under the high stone arch, but . . .

"All safe, ser, me men's in place. Nobbut a dozen a' th' barbs, loik they said, even th' slaves've run er been sent off. Coulda took them's dogs 'n siller too, easy-loik."

"Good man. Come along."

M'lewis whistled softly, a hissing note like a night-flying dactosauroid; his dog walked out of the underbrush with its reins in its teeth and dropped them at his feet. He vaulted easily into the saddle and fell in as they spurred back into a lope. Glancing back brought only a gleam of eyes under the faint light of half-full Miniluna, a dark mass rising and falling as the battalion swept down the long curving drive. Gravel crunched under paws; the soft warm night was full of the smells of eucalyptus from the bluegums along the road, of warm dog and powdered rock and fading spring flowers.

Karl Bellamy was waiting on the portico of his manor, under a lantern that showed him and his retainers standing with no arms but their swords. It was an old building, far older than the Squadron conquest, mellow marble and tile. A tall fountain stood before the steps, a marble maiden reaching for a globe that danced on her fingertips. One foot was missing, and a well had been sunk through the stone pavement beside the basin. Hitching posts showed that it was a watering trough for visitors' dogs, now. Raj beat down a rush of irrational anger and flung up one hand. Van-dals, he thought.

The command party reined their dogs and the animals sank back on their haunches, breaking in a spurt of gravel and dust that billowed to the front steps of the portico. Behind them the 5th split both ways and peeled into a single two-deep line of men and guns, wet dog-fangs catching the lantern as the animals panted.

"Captain Staenbridge, secure the area," Raj said, swinging down. Behind him boots clattered on stone as the flanking companies deployed on foot; the banner-men and trumpeter stayed mounted, the long poles and silk-fringed cloth swaying overhead.

The Squadron men saluted in their manner, right fist to breast and then straight out; Raj tucked his helmet under one arm and inclined his head very slightly.

"Captain Karl Bellamy?" he said.

"I am the Bellamy," the Squadron leader said, in a slow deep voice that seemed to rumble from his chest; the Sponglish was much more accented than his son's, but understandable. His gray-shot beard reached nearly to his waist; the kettle belly beneath it only added to the aura of gross strength about the man.

"Brigadier General Raj Ammenda Halgern da Luis Whitehall," Raj said.

"This is my son Benter." A younger version of his brother Ludwig, staring at the dark foreign faces with a boy's delight in wonders. "Be welcome on my land; drink the guest-draught with me and be peace-holy."

Bellamy took up an heirloom drinking cup, priceless ancient plastic cradled in modern silver filigree; his sons drank first, a solid mouthful each, before their father. Some of the wine spilled into his beard; he wiped his mouth on one paw and offered the guest-draught. Raj drank in his turn, moderately—there was still a quarter of a liter, excellent red wine—and handed the rest to Gerrin. Let all my officers be peace-holy and none of us drunk, he thought ironically. Still, by all accounts most Squadron members actually put some store in this sort of thing. With a Stalwart, say, you knew an oath was the time to look out for the hidden knife; their favorite sport was fratricide.

Bellamy blinked solemn pouched eyes, sad as a hound's in their nests of cheek-beard and bushy eyebrow.

"We must speak," he said. None of the retainers objected aloud when a squad and Gerrin Staenbridge accompanied the two leaders, or when another squad sealed off the door behind them. Bellamy led the way through shadowed corridors of faded magnificence and gaudy splendor to a small room. He glanced at Staenbridge.

"This man is my kinsman and right arm," Raj said. True enough: They were fourth cousins or something of that sort. Every gentry family in the County was related somehow, just as every one had a vendetta or two if you went back far enough.

Bellamy nodded slowly. "I will not snipe with words," he said. "Admiral Auburn is no friend of mine. The Bellamys were kin to old Admiral Tonbridge. He would not have sent our best men away when war threatened!"

Actually, he was an even bigger idiot than the present one, Raj thought. Also the old Admiral's mother had been a very minor relation of the previous Gubernatorial family in East Residence, sent to the barbaricum as a maiden sacrifice to the gods of diplomacy. Many Squadron nobles had thought him too influenced by his mother, and suspected—quite rightly—that he leaned to the Spirit of Man of the Stars. The change of dynasties was one of the official causi belli, not that it mattered. A bit ironic coming from the equally usurping Cleretts . . . .

"The Auburns are usurpers," Raj nodded. "The Spirit will not favor a usurper in war."

"You promise—" Bellamy began, stroking his beard. "You promise those who swear to you keep their lands?"

"Yes," Raj said firmly. "Minus one-third for the Civil Government." Bellamy winced, but it was better than losing everything and being sold to the mines. "Just as I promise oblivion for those who resist. The Civil Government would rather have you as loyal subjects—we can use your fighting men, for one thing—but if I have to grind you into dog meat to pacify these Territories, I will do it."

Bellamy's thick-fingered hands twisted at each other, and sweat broke out on his ridged forehead.

"So you say, Messer General. Yet you will not be king here—will the next Vice Governor abide by your word?"

A good question. Once the Civil Government was firmly in charge, a reversal of policy would be nearly impossible to resist.

"Probably. I'm privy to Governor Barholm's War Council, and the policy is to conciliate where possible. We want to rule stable and productive lands, not put down rebellions every other year. And the Southern Territories are a long way from East Residence . . . I'll not mince words; you'll find our taxes hard—Spirit knows, most of us do—and we'll probably see that a lot of your young men see military service elsewhere, on the Colonial frontier, for example; but that's not altogether bad. We don't hold a gentleman's origins against him in the Army"—much—"and your sons, for example, could go far as officers. Perhaps on my staff . . . .

"The rest of you will be disarmed, at least at first. In return you'll get stable government, peace, and prosperity."

Bellamy leaned forward. "These are good words. But what of your Church? What of the Viral Cleansers?"

Raj winced slightly. "Well, that is something of a problem—especially given the way you've treated members of our faith. Certainly the church properties will have to be restored. I can only say that my policy will be tolerance, and the civil administrator appointed to follow me thinks likewise. As long as you don't try to proselytize or worship in public . . . Not one in a hundred of the people here is a This Earth follower, anyway. Those who want to rise in the Army or at Court will have to embrace orthodoxy, of course."

Bellamy hunched back in his chair, covering his eyes with one hand; after a moment Raj was startled to see silent tears trickling down into the bushy beard.

"I must preserve my sons' heritage," he whispered hoarsely in his own language. "I cannot destroy the Bellamy line for Auburn's folly. . . ."

Suddenly his face froze in Raj's sight; lines and patterns moved across it. The mottled image hung imposed over the living man, then jumped toward the general in silent leaps. Arrows sprang out around it, indicating the pupils and the pattern of coloration.

stress analysis indicates subject bellamy is sincere, Center said, probability 96% ± 2%.

"You speak honestly, like an honorable man. I will swear," Bellamy said. "Fetch my sons! They too will swear to you!" He rose and then fell to his knees.

Raj stood and awkwardly took the noble's hands between his, stumbling through the ritual of allegiance; this was not the time to explain the difference between swearing loyalty to an individual and to the State. All the same, it's lucky nobody but Gerrin is here. Put the wrong way, this could be sticky back in East Residence. Ceremony complete, Bellamy went over to a desk whose grace and sauroid-ivory inlays were incongruous beside his bulk. When he turned there was a sheaf of papers in his hands.

"Admiral Auburn has summoned the war host," the Squadron commander said, all business and flat impersonal tones now. "He attacks tomorrow, thus—"

* * *

"So the city garrison, under Commodore Conner Auburn, the Admiral's youngest brother, will sortie south down the coast road. Twelve thousand men, give or take a thousand."

Raj looked up, across the circle of officers grouped around the map table, under the swaying lantern. It was 0330; some of them were bleary-eyed, others gulping kave or gnawing on bannocks. There was sand under his eyelids as well, and sleep was a distant memory of childhood. Seventy thousand men were in motion, barbarian and Civil Government, like huge ponderous pieces of machinery in a big steam engine. His mind felt like that too, like machined shapes of iron and brass whirring and camming in oiled precision; everything was bright-edged and clear.

"They're expecting to hit us around noon—which means they're probably leaving Port Murchison around now. Conner Auburn's a hothead even by Squadron standards, so I expect the ones on the best dogs to arrive first and the rest to straggle. Major Staenbridge, I'm sending you with the 5th and the 7th"—the 5th was overstrength, so that meant fourteen hundred men, and very good ones—"and two batteries, six guns, to meet him around—" His finger stabbed down on the coast road about halfway to Port Murchison. "—here. Get there early; otherwise I leave the details to your discretion, but don't get out of reach or let them flank you. Bloody their noses and fall back on the base here if they press you—fire and movement."

"Understood, sir." Gerrin rotated his shoulders, frowning at the map and unconsciously flexing the heavy muscles like a plowman looking at the field and preparing for a day's job of work.

"The next element of the enemy's plan," Raj went on, "is a diversionary attack by two thousand picked cavalry—some of Admiral Auburn's household troops—coming in from our west and planning to hit us around 1000 hours and make us face front west while the other forces approach from north and south. I've sent the Scout Group of the 5th to get their exact position, and Master Sergeant da Cruz to get the Skinners moving to block them."

Raj's finger moved south until it was below the Expeditionary Force's original landing site, then moved north parallel to the line of march but farther from the coast.

"Admiral Auburn has been sweeping up from Sefex"—the southernmost city on the Territories' east coast—"calling out the home-levy of the Squadron, plus anyone who's managed to get out of our way and run southwest. He has the remainder of his household guards, fifteen hundred men, and whatever he's been able to rally: at least thirty thousand, perhaps forty." Or possibly more; they're likely to answer the call whole-hearted, with us here burning and killing.

There were grunts around the table; Raj's expression might have been called a smile, by someone who did not look too closely.

"They'll have all the unit coordination of a street brawl after a racetrack meet—but don't forget. They're fighting on the doorsteps of their homes, for their families and Church and the graves of their fathers.

"There are only two real routes of approach from the south for a force that size"—which could not get far from potable water, for one thing—"here and here. Major Zahpata, you'll take your battalion, the 1st Gaur Rangers, and the 3rd Chongwe Dragoons with one battery, and push down this route."

Haldolfo Zahpata of the 18th Komar Borderers nodded, stroking his pointed black beard. He was a leathery middle-aged professional, experienced but not ambitious, and middling gentry at home. Buthelezi of the 1st Gaur was a crony of Dalhouse's, but he wouldn't give Zahpata trouble.

"Major Thiddo, you'll take your Slashers, the 21st Novy Haifa Dragoons, the 17th Hemmar Valley Cuirassiers, and likewise one battery." Putting Dalhouse under Thiddo was a calculated risk; the man was insanely birth-proud, and senior to boot. On the other hand, putting Poplanich in charge of that column was out of the question; nobody with any ambition, of which Dalhouse had more than his share, was going to associate with a Poplanich. I can accompany that column in person, Raj thought

"Both of you: Your mission is to fix the front of Admiral Auburn's column and force it to deploy—which, knowing the Squadron, will take quite some time. Move forward fast, but do not allow yourselves to be drawn into a melee. Remember, you have four times the range of their weapons and five times the rate of fire; put one battalion up on point, and keep the other two and the guns on overwatch from defensible terrain every time you move forward. When you make contact, have your lead battalion gall them with long-range fire. When they charge, fall back on your base-of-fire and give them volley fire and shrapnel until they start to envelop you. Then fall back and repeat the process. The column which hears the other engage first will ride to the sound of the guns and repeat the process; draw them back on the camp, but as slowly as possible.

"Colonel Menyez, you will be in charge of the camp and the infantry," Raj went on. Menyez nodded, wiping his nose on a handkerchief in his perpetual allergy problem. "Keep them standing to arms; light combat load, hardtack, water, and double ammunition, but man the walls and stand ready to support either cavalry force if it's driven in, or to move forward." Only a couple of the infantry units were really steady enough to face cavalry in the open. "Major Poplanich, you will act as central cavalry reserve at my or Colonel Menyez's discretion." At that, Ehwardo could be relied on to work with an infantry officer without complaint; not something to be assumed with many of the others.

"Major Staenbridge will move immediately; the cavalry columns at dawn, when the camp beats to arms. And if that's all, Messers, I suggest those of us who can get some rest and the remainder attend to business. It's going to be a long day."

The meeting broke up quickly; nobody was in a mood for chitchat. Raj stood by the outer post of the tent; the two Descotter battalions were outside, filling the square as the men sat beside their crouching dogs.

"Keep them in play while you can," Raj said to Gruder and Staenbridge. "I'm giving you all I can spare because I'd really rather fight one battle at a time, if I could."

Gerrin nodded, slapping his fist into his palm to tighten the gloves. "City militia and sailors on dogback," he said, "apart from Conner and his house-men."

Kaltin grinned. "Mebbe we'uns kin do summat fer ye, loik, ser," he drawled in broad County dialect

They all slapped fists together, and Raj watched them walk out to their commands with envy. Damn, but I'd like to have just one job of manageable size, he thought as he watched.


The troops swung into the saddle; forward file-closers in each company carried lighted torches of bundled oilwood sticks, so that the formations could keep position in a fast night march.

Gerrin Staenbridge stood in the stirrups and pitched his voice to carry:

"Right, lads, it's time to earn our pay and show the enemy what County men are made of. These barbs make a lot of noise and look a sight, but they'll go back faster than they come forward after they meet us. Just remember to mind the orders and aim low." His right fist shot skyward and then chopped down to the front. "To Hell or plunder, dog-brothers—walk-march, trot."

Suzette came up behind Raj, sliding her hand through the crook of his elbow as they watched the streaming fires pour down to the gate and turn north on the coast road; the moons were both down, and there was only the rippling frosted light of the stars to show them against the white dirt of the track. Her voice was a murmur at his shoulder.

"You should sleep, my darling," she said. "A little while, at least."

He put an arm around her waist. "Can't," he sighed. "Too wired—hell, too much kave."

"Come." She pulled him gently toward the rear of the tent. "I can make you sleep. Come with me, my love."

* * *

"Raj. Raj, wake up."

"Huh." Raj sat upright with a jolt, out of dreams of fear and flight. It was still hard dark; Suzette was there in her wrap, touching his shoulder. He slid the pistol back under the pillow and swung his feet to the floor, scrubbing his face with his hands, then splashing water over it from the basin and running fingers through his hair. Right now his brain felt muzzy, worse than if he had not slept at all, but he would be better for the rest in a little while.

"It's da Cruz," Suzette said quietly.

Swift and skillful, one of the servants was laying out fresh kit: trousers, boots, underclothes, belt, ammunition pouches, slide rule, mapcase, binoculars. And another mug of kave with a cup of goat's milk. Spirit, he thought, swigging them down in alternate gulps. If the Azanians ever cut off our supply of kave beans, the Army high command is doomed.

"He's wounded," she went on. "Not seriously. It was the Skinners, not the enemy."

Scramento, he thought, grunting. "There goes the western flank." And a three-battalion force of the Admiral's death-sworn household guards getting ready to fall on him out of nowhere, too.

"Don't worry," he said, laying a hand on her cheek for an instant. "Just the usual desperate emergency."

Da Cruz was swearing as Raj dipped a shoulder through the doorflap into the outer room of the tent, fastening the collar of his tunic and knotting the red-and-black checked bandanna. The noncom was on a stool, bare to the waist while a Renunciate medico in jumpsuit and robe worked on a long superficial cut on his forearm. The coal-oil lamp showed the stocky torso and knotted arms laced with scar tissue; knife, sword, bullet, and shrapnel had all left their marks, and it looked as if someone had once tried to write their name on the Master Sergeant's stomach with a hot iron, getting as far as the second letter before trailing off.

Now he had a new wound, a long shallow slash along the outside of the arm from wrist to elbow. The nun swabbed it out with iodine, washed the arm with blessed water, and began building a substantial bandage with linen and gauze.

"Spirit's holy static, careful with that, Sister!" he said.

"Watch your language," she snapped back. "No hope of getting you to rest it?" She clicked her tongue. "Boys. Well, try and keep it clean."

"What happened, Top?" Raj said.

Some of it was obvious from da Cruz's uniform tunic, thrown on the floor. The left arm was blood-soaked and slit—it had taken a very sharp blade to do that—and one of the tails had been cut off as an improvised bandage. A Skinner patcha knife, Raj judged, the arm-long type they kept as general-purpose chopping tool. It had been originally designed to cut firewood and hack through the massive bones of grazing sauroids; but the Skinners were nothing if not versatile.

"It's them Skinners, Messer Raj," da Cruz said. He took the water-jug a servant offered and drank, Adam's apple bobbing. Wounds made a man thirsty, and he looked to have lost some blood. "Theyun er five klicks outa position, an' boozin' summat fierce in a Squadron kasgrane. Tole 'em to git movin'—git this fer my pains, ser. Lucky to 'scape wit' me life."

"Joy," Raj said.

Think. This is your job, think. The Squadron battle plan was a monstrosity, even before it was compromised; it depended on things going right and precise coordination between what were little better than armed mobs. The two thousand out west were the only enemy force that was really mobile, and the only one that was all full-time professional fighters—not really soldiers, but they would have some idea of what they were doing.

"The Skinners won't listen to anyone else, and they're the only force in reach," he said, mostly to himself. "The Forty Thieves have the line of march pegged"—that bunch of guardhouse rejects and throat-cutters really could do reconnaissance now that M'lewis had put the fear of the Spirit into them—"but only the Skinners can intercept them."

Unless he committed his only reserve battalion of regular cavalry . . . but the roll call of battles won by the last man to commit his reserves stretched back beyond recorded history. Here's where I start cursing sending Kaltin and Gerrin both, he thought. Then: It was the right decision. We can't have them catching us like a pinyata between two sticks.

"Suzette?" he called. She came through the curtain in her riding costume, holding the Colonial repeater carbine and thumbing a last round into the tube magazine through the gate above the lever. "Sorry, darling—you're staying behind this time. Officer of the guard!"

"Get me Colonel Menyez." Cavalry snobbery be damned; Menyez would have to hold the fort, and send the two columns south. Poplanich would be his second . . . and if I'm ever in a position to do it, we're going to have a regular table of ranks and establish permanent brigades, he decided. Damn the political risks. We need formations that are used to working together.

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