"Sixty thousand if it's one, Major, Spirit be with us," the Slasher captain said in his singsong borderland accent. "Malash. The Spirit appoints our rising and our going down."
An' ye'll nivver see that comin' down t'road from Blayberry Fair, Mekkle Thiddo quoted to himself in County dialect. Instinctively he crouched a little lower on the ridge, pressing his body against the rough-barked trunk of the olive tree.
"Well, that solves the problem of which route they're taking. They're using all of them. Runner to Major Zahpata with the other column, Captain Belagez: our location, and that we're engaging."
The sight of the Squadron host was stunning enough, spreading from the sea on the east to the edge of sight on the west. A huge clot of them were shambling down the road, ox-drawn wagons and a rabble on foot that must be the servants and unarmed followers. The mounted Squadron lords and their retinues sprawled over the open country by twos and threes, by scores and hundreds; enough of them that they flowed over the stubble and through the orchards like dark water on the sere yellow and green. A huge mist of dust smoked up over them, hiding the endless waves that followed, and the packs of spare dogs. The sound was like a long slow roar of surf.
Thiddo raised his binoculars. Faces jumped out at him across the kilometers; there were groups ranging from a lone freeholder with a rusty musket, ambling along on a gray-muzzled dog, to the households of magnates glittering with metal-studded saddles and jewelry.
"Nothing to worry about, Peydro," he said. Although it's more than enough to piss your britches for. He touched the amulet at his throat, and the locket with the picture of his wife. "Not a cannon among them, and most of these barbs have never heard a shot fired in anger."
There might be a few ox-drawn brass guns among the host, but if so they were back among the transport and useless. The border barons who fought the desert and mountain tribes were too far away to have answered the summons so soon, and the best of the Squadron levy were away with Curtis Ashburn. And sixty thousand more were barreling down on his three battalions. My three battalions. A third of the Expeditionary Force's striking power, fifteen hundred lives, and they all depended on him.
He turned and slid back downslope to where the others waited. "Right," he said, in the cool tones he'd heard Messer Raj use. "Majors Dalhouse and Istban, keep your force well-concealed on this ridge. When we come back"—because he was damned if he was going to put the tricky part in Dalhouse's hands, not when everyone's arse depended on it being done right—"give them rapid volley fire by companies as soon as we're clear. Lieutenant Muhadez, open fire with airburst shrapnel at three thousand meters."
The gunner nodded, looking up from his rangefinder. "Seyor," he said, nodding. The commander of the Novy Haifa Dragoons added the same; Dalhouse grunted wordlessly.
Thiddo gave a final look both ways. The two supporting units were spread along the ridge just below the crest in double file, with their dogs crouched only afew meters behind them. The guns likewise, with the teams crouching in their harness and still hitched to the caissons; all they'd have to do was let the last round roll the weapons back from the crest, slap the trails onto the caissons and gallop away.
Nothing to do but stand ready and then shoot, he thought, turning to his own command.
The company officers crowded around him: dark as Descotters but more slightly built, mostly bearded, with the ends trimmed to points. They had khaki-colored cloths wound around their helmets and crimson sashes under their sword-belts; merrier than County men, swifter-witted on average although less steady, and fine foray-and-ambush fighters from generations of fighting Bedouin raiders on the Drangosh frontier with the Colony . . . and from raiding over it themselves, of course. Like weasels in a henhouse with civilians, unless you watched them. They grinned at him now, unconcerned at having an outsider appointed over them as long as it was by Messer Raj, the Spirit-blessed general who'd sent the head of the Colony's Settler back to East Residence in a keg of arrack.
"Right, men," he went on. "We'll do some Slashing now, eh?" More grins, punctuated with spitting on the ground and holy oaths; every man of them was jingling with Star amulets, circuit chips and display modules in a display of the violent piety of the southern border.
"Open-order column until we're within a thousand meters. Then we'll deploy into line by companies; company advances, fire and retreat by alternates on the trumpet. Spirit of Man be with us."
"Holy Federation Church with us, brothers," they answered. "Hingada thes Ihorantes! Kill the Infidels!"
He swung into the saddle as the rest of the battalion raised their amulets and fell into line behind the color-party and the banner; then he raised his hand and chopped it forward. The trumpet sounded and the mass of men and dogs rocked into a lope, opening up to two-meter spacing between each man in the column of fours as they crossed the ridge. The banner flapped behind him, the silk making a ripping noise as they picked up speed; he knotted the reins and let them lie on the horn of the saddle as the column rose over the ridge. There were parties of Squadrones all over the plain, mostly surging forward, but a few moving south on errands of their own. None of them had the geometric order of Civil Government troops, but it would be a moment before they were noticed. He waved his arm twice and pointed toward the largest clump of enemy troops; his body adjusted to the long swooping movements of the dog with a lifetime's ease.
Two or three thousand of them just in that one bunch. Merciful avatars.
Dohloreyz had told him to be careful, before he'd left from his last leave. The house had still been in chaos with the additions going on, the barns and cottages first for the help and the new stock for the land he'd bought. Pa and his younger brothers still looking at him as if the sun rose behind his head, Ma wringing her hands—she always distrusted good fortune, little though the family had had of it in her lifetime . . . Dohloreyz wasn't sure if she was pregnant yet, hard though they'd tried since the wedding. Everyone had wanted to know them all of a sudden, relatives who hadn't called in years; they'd even had that greasy Christo moneylender sniffing around again, and the satisfaction of flogging him off their now-unmortgaged estate.
"Scramento," he muttered; the Squadron unit ahead had definitely seen something.
Better than a kilometer to go. The Slashers' formation slid down into a hollow like a ground-hugging snake, and when they came up the opposite lip the enemy unit was milling like a kicked anthill. Messengers splattered out from it toward the others around, and the remainder clumped about the tall cloth-of-gold standard in its midst. Thiddo signaled to the trumpeter and he raised the curled brass to his lips. Ta-ra-ra-ta. The color party slowed, and the column of fours behind them opened out on both sides like a fen. Three minutes, and the whole Battalion was trotting in a double line abreast, with each trooper two meters from his neighbor and double intervals between companies.
Damn, but these are good troops, Thiddo thought with a glow of pride. Just over two thousand meters to the target. He lifted a clenched fist and pumped it twice into the air. The trumpet sounded again over the thunder of massed paws and the growing buzz from the enemy. Three companies launched themselves forward, out of the line like teeth on a saw. The slender desert-bred dogs rocketed forward in a stretched-out gallop, hindpaws coming up between forelegs and bounding off again.
"Despert Staahl!" the men screamed. Awake the Iron!, the war-cry of the southern borders. Then: "Aur! Aur!" in an endless yelping falsetto chorus. They stood in the stirrups as the lines pounded forward, rifles leveled over their left forearms; the enemy ahead of them was still milling. A few rode forward to meet the attack; some others were already firing at the Civil Government soldiers.
Might as well try to hit the moons, Thiddo thought contemptuously. That was beyond range for Armory rifles, much less smoothbores. A thousand meters. Eight hundred. Six hundred. Anything beyond two hundred was safe from Squadron weapons, more or less. Four hundred meters. Now, now!
As if in answer to his thought the first rank of charging Slashers fired. Not quite a volley, more like a rippling crack down the line: BAMbambambambam. The dogs dropped their haunches and reared, turning; the second line galloped through the first and fired ten meters farther toward the Squadron troops, then turned as well; less than a minute and the three companies were galloping back along their own path, reloading as they guided their mounts with knees and voice. The trumpet sounded, and the two companies with Thiddo rocked into a gallop in their turn.
Nobody could achieve any useful degree of accuracy against individual targets from a moving dog, not at these ranges. With enough practice, you could learn to hit large targets—several thousand men bunched shoulder to shoulder would do nicely—and the Slashers, like most units recruited on the Colonial frontier, made a specialty of this maneuver—the fantasia, it was called. The mass of Squadrones ahead of him was littered with dead men, and with dogs dead or thrashing around wounded, which was much worse. He could hear their howling, and a flurry of blurred whumps from Squadron smoothbores as the animals were put down before they turned on the nearest human.
Closer; six hundred meters. More groups pouring across the plain, angling out toward his men or in toward the golden spaceship-and-planet banner . . . Spirit save me, that must be the Admiral we're attacking, no wonder they're upset. Five hundred. Four hundred, and he drew his saber; a pistol was about as much use as a holy-water sprinkler at that range. It flashed up and then down in a shimmering arc. BAMbambambambam, another stuttering crash, louder this time as the tongues of flame shot forward from either side of them. He wheeled his dog, the big animal scrambling sideways as it killed velocity and threw clods of dust and wheat-straw, then riding back and BAMbambambambam behind him as the second file fired. Ahead the first three companies had reined in and turned, galloping back toward him.
Aur! Aur! They passed in a flash of combined speed; the trumpet sounded rally as Thiddo reined in and turned.
"Well, that's got them worked up and no mistake," he said to himself.
The whole mass of odds-and-sods around the Admiral's banner was rocking forward into a wild charge, waving swords and blunderbusses, banners flapping. The sound of their bellowing was almost as deep as the massed baying snarl of their dogs; more and more groups merged into the galloping mass, as individual noblemen and their retainers rallied to the Admiral. The last fantasia was from barely a hundred meters, and whole sections of the Squadrones went down before it. A few Slashers were hit by the return fire; a few more were dismounted, and swung up pillion by their comrades. The loose dogs mostly followed the retreating companies; two remained with bared teeth to fight and die over the bodies of dead masters.
"Sound retreat," Thiddo said.
The Slashers heeled their dogs and headed back for the ridge; the companies closed up and fell in one behind the other as they rode. The ridge grew ahead: The gap with their pursuers was growing; the Civil Government cavalry were on faster dogs and knew where they were going. A mob as big as that following them would include a lot of slow riders, and not many wanted to be right out in front. Especially when the rear ranks of the pursued were turning in the saddle to shoot backward occasionally. . . .
POUMM. A pulse through the air as much as a noise, and a long tongue of flame from a field gun among the olive trees on the low ridge. POUMM. POUMM. The shells went whistling overhead with a sound like ripping canvas. Thiddo looked back. Two of the shells airburst over the advancing host with vicious crack sounds. Dirty blackish smoke-puffs at ten meters height, and oblongs opening below in the dark densely packed mass of galloping men and dogs. Thiddo winced slightly: the casings of the shells were loaded with hundreds of lead balls packed around a bursting charge. A third shell's time-fuse was off and it exploded on contact in a dark poplar shape of pulverized soil. That one was less deadly than the airbursts, but there were bits and pieces of men and dogs among the debris cast skyward.
POUMM. POUMM. POUMM. Three more shots, ten seconds later. There were ten thousand of them at least following him now, a huge moving carpet that heaved and sparkled in the sun, sparkled with steel and brass and polished iron musket-barrels. More riding in from all over the rolling plain. But the Squadrones were not used to artillery; the front rank faltered, and hundreds of dogs went wild with panic, throwing their riders or attacking those next to them—always a risk with animals who had not trained together—or riding off across the battlefield in uncontrollable funk with the men sawing at their reins. "Shooting stars," they were called. . . . The huge roaring noise of the charge changed timbre, mixed with the frenzied screaming of wounded dogs.
* * *
Major Anhelino Dalhouse cursed as the 75s let out another salvo and his wolfhound attempted to curvet.
The third gun of the battery had fired with a CRACK! an instant after the BOOM/BOOM of its sister tubes. Recoil from previous shots had driven the gun far enough back that this round was from the top of the ridge itself. The other two guns were still down the forward slope where the mass of earth and rock deadened their muzzle blasts. The shift in timbre made Dalhouse's knees clamp, multiplying the dog's own nervous reaction. The men behind him were murmuring to their crouching mounts spaced out through the sparse olive grove; a chorus of whines and growls sounded.
"Redlegged muckeating wogs!" Dalhouse snarled as he fought his mount back under control. No way he was going to dismount, of course.
The artillerymen ran their gun forward, heaving at the tall iron rims of the wheels to get it started as it disappeared down the forward slope again. Rifles volleyed at a greater distance, cutting through a sound like heavy surf that he couldn't identify. Ican't see a damned thing from here, Dalhouse thought, his mouth working. He had a gleeful momentary vision of heavy bullets scything down the gunners, ringing on the gun tubes . . . the caissons exploding, blowing to hell the whole damnable mess of stinks and noises and men with as little social position as the mongrel mule-dogs that drew their guns.
"How close are they, sir?" asked Ensign Meribor, Dalhouse's aide—a cousin from the wealthy side of his wife's family. His restive mount tried to lick the muzzle of Dalhouse's wolfhound, causing the latter to first snap, then growl in embarrassment at being startled.
Dalhouse fought his reins. "How in the bloody Starless Dark would I know?" he snarled. "And keep your dog back! What do you think you are, you shopkeeper on dogback, a bleeding gunner?"
Boom. Boom. Boom.
A bullet whickered high overhead. Probably a ricochet, certainly no threat to anyone . . . but an evil sound, and a reminder of the things that might be taking place unseen on the other side of the ridgeline.
The thought decided Dalhouse in the instant it flashed across the surface of his mind. If that incompetent heathen-loving Descotter savage Thiddo thought he was going to leave Dalhouse to be shot down when a wave of Squadrones appeared on the ridgeline, he had another think coining . . .
Dalhouse spurred his mount toward the ridgeline from which he could view the battlefield for himself. "Come along!" he ordered Meribor.
Dalhouse wore rowels with long spikes for the look and jingle rather than need, but tension dug his heels deeper than he'd intended this time. The wolfhound yelped and brought its long jaws around by reflex, before it realized that the target was its master's booted leg—and therefore sacrosanct. The beast lurched forward, whining deep in its throat.
"Sir, should we be—"
"—leaving our position?" Meribor called desperately from behind Dalhouse. The boy wasn't a natural rider. He was a city lad, raised in the East Residence in a house which would have stunk of trade were the smell not smothered by so much money.
One has to be practical, even in matters of honor.
Dalhouse glanced over his shoulder. Meribor's mount had followed Dalhouse's own, unbidden, catching the boy unprepared. His left hand was tangled in the wolfhound's curly neck fur, a white-knuckled grip that instinct said was safer than the reins.
"We're not leaving our position!" Dalhouse snapped.
Beyond Meribor, the helmets and polished brassards of the 17th Hemmar Valley Cuirassiers blazed with reflected sunlight, framing and concealing the faces of the troopers watching their commanding officer. They were glorious next to the rather drab issue uniforms of the Novy Haifa Dragoons.
"Do you think I'm going to trust a Rogor County half-wog to decide when my troops—"
CRACK! and the rest of the sentence—"advance"—was shocked out of Dalhouse's mind by the muzzle blasts; a field gun and volleying Armory rifles no longer blocked by the ridge that his wolfhound had just surmounted. His head whipped around just as the other two guns let loose together. They bounded backward uphill behind a red flash an instant before their paired CRACKCRACK slammed Dalhouse's ears.
The view across the ridge was as sudden a shock as that of the unmuffled gunfire. Dalhouse had never been good with numbers. "Fifty thousand Squadrones," Whitehall had said, but that meant nothing, it was not real. It was like listening to a bailiff talking about tithes and harvests, when all that mattered to Dalhouse was that there be a sufficiency of money to buy whatever his whim required.
The mass of men and weapons and brightly caparisoned dogs now visible in the valley before Dalhouse was real. It was enough to sweep the whole world before it and grind anything that tried to stop it into dust The sound he had wondered at was their voices and the paws of their dogs, beating like the roar of surf, like a natural force, an earthquake or forest fire. Three guns and a handful of the Rogor Slashers—irregulars, near as no matter, half-breed wogs—would be swallowed up unnoticed by the Squadrones' advance. Even as Dalhouse stared, half of Thiddo's force turned their dogs and galloped toward the doubtful safety of the ridge.
A round musket-ball, flattened into a miniature frisbee when it ricocheted from a stone, moaned burrburrburr past Dalhouse's ear.
Powder smoke, white and sulfurous, lay like a gauze shroud over the valley. A breeze curled hazy whiffs up the slope. Dalhouse, breathing through flared nostrils as he considered the situation, the impossible situation, gagged as something like the blade of a buzzsaw scoured the back of his throat. His dog whined and pawed its nose.
Dalhouse wheeled his wolfhound. "Ensign Meribor!" he ordered. "Ride back to the camp! Tell whoever's in charge there to advance at once and support us. At once! Or it'll be too late!"
It was no doubt too late already. Well, a gentleman of the Civil Government was willing to die when honor demanded. . . .
Without waiting for Meribor to respond, Dalhouse spurred his mount into a deliberate trot toward the standard-bearer of the 17th. He had been betrayed. Thiddo and Whitehall had put him out here to die. Everyone knew what Descott County was like. Whitehall's blood father was undoubtedly some groom his mother had taken a fancy to, as sure as Whitehall's wife was a whore!
Meribor's mount passed Dalhouse at a dead gallop. The ensign clung to the big wolfhound's neck with both arms. He'd managed to lose the stirrups, and his brassard turned on its chains to jingle against his back. The stirrup-irons beat a tattoo in time with it on the mount's ribs.
Meribor was shouting—perhaps to the dog, perhaps to his mother. The dog, at least, took no notice.
"Pull him up!" Dalhouse bellowed. He spurred his own mount in pursuit. Dalhouse's wolfhound, nervy already from the noise and smoke, put its long head down and bolted after its companion.
Dalhouse realized his mistake at almost the instant he made it. He sawed his reins, but the half-ton carnivore had taken control of its immediate future and ignored the levers pressing on its muzzle. Neck and neck, the two dogs and the officers astride them swept around the southern flank of the 17th Hemmar Valley Cuirassiers, heading for the far hills. The color party and trumpeter dashed out to keep their station by the commander.
Like a sweater unraveling, the twin glittering ranks of the battalion began to trail off behind Dalhouse and his aide.
* * *
POUMM. POUMM. POUMM.
Mekkle Thiddo stood in the stirrups and stared ahead at the ridgeline: Where was the glitter of ranked riflemen moving forward? He heard a bugle blowing, sounding stand, stand to, and halt. The bottom seemed to drop out of his stomach as he swept over the ridge. The artillery was there, gunners slamming fresh shells into the breech and rolling the pieces forward by the wheels to their firing positions. And about a company of the Novy Haifa . . . and the backs of everyone else, spread out in wild disorder and racing full-tilt back north toward the camp.
There were shouts behind him, rage and fear as the men of the Slashers realized what had happened. The halt was ragged when the trumpet blew, but they halted . . . Mekkle Thiddo felt the collar of his uniform tunic cutting into his flesh, tasted a sudden rush of acid bile at the back of his throat. Defeat. We're all fucking dead. Disgrace . . . Dohloreyz—
"Turn!" he screamed. "Battalion firing line along the ridge—keep your dogs with you—move, move, now now now!
The trumpeter sounded it, again and again; the men moved, a little slowly at first and then with desperate speed. The five companies wheeled out into line just behind the crest of the ridge, the dogs crouching flat and the men staying seated in the saddle. The Squadron was spread out over three, four times their frontage and beginning to come forward again, although there were milling clumps where the dogs were still panicked by the shellfire, and swirling confusion where the rear ranks pressing forward had run into them. No more than a minute's leeway, he knew. Suddenly everything was diamond-clear; his own lips seemed too slow, too numb for the words he must pour out of them.
Major Istban of the Novy Haifa came up, weeping tears of rage and shame. "The Cuirassiers bugged out. It was like a dam breaking—Dalhouse couldn't hold them and when they didn't rally he took off after them"—There was red dripping from the edge of the other officer's sword, a sign of how he had turned back some at least of his own men.
"Shut up," Thiddo said calmly. "Take those you've got, rally what you can on the way, set up there—" He pointed to a clump of eucalyptus four thousand meters to the north. "Lieutenant Muhadez!" The gunnery officer had come running. "Limber up after your next shoot, then get the hell back there and support us as we withdraw. We'll slow them down, you shoot hell out of them as they come over the ridge—leapfrog. Understand?"
He nodded. "Go!" The guns fired once more, but this time the crews caught them as they finished their recoil and used the momentum to run them to the caissons. An iron clang sounded as the trails were dropped onto the loops and holding-bars slammed home, then they leaped to saddle and handhold, and the men mounted on the lead pairs of the dog-teams shouted their mounts into a gallop. The remnants of the Novy Haifa Dragoons followed the bounding, jolting passage of the guns.
Then there was nothing but his own command and the pounding thunder of the Squadron host starting their climb up the long shallow slope to the ridge. Light flashed across the raised sword-blades: The front of the charge was a thousand meters, and the ranks were packed up to fourteen deep.
"Wait for it!" Thiddo shouted, keeping his voice flat and his mount well back so that only his head and shoulders were above the crestline. The last thing the men needed was to hear him screeching. "We'll be giving them five rounds and then pulling back to the next position."
Gray sweating faces under the helmets on either side. A thousand meters to the spray of brave men on fast dogs the Squadrones were casting ahead. Nine hundred. They would be firing down a long slope into the mass of the enemy. Beyond the Admiral's standard the whole plain was alive with growing clumps of them, gathering and heading toward the sound of combat. Down along the line he could hear officers and NCOs giving last-minute instructions:
"Steady, brothers, and aim for their feet, aim low."
"Malash, Malash, the Spirit is with us—and I'm behind you, Assed."
"Volley fire by platoons and rank. Prepare for rapid fire."
Eight hundred meters. He heeled his dog forward to the crest, the standardbearer and trumpeter following, and raised his saber. The men stood; they were in double file, with the ranks staggered so that the rear men had a clear field of fire through the gaps in the front rank. There was a yell and surge through the Squadron formation as the figures rose as if by magic among the edge of the olives. The enemy vanguard recoiled on those behind. . . .
"Aim." The front rank brought their long Armory rifles to their shoulders with a single smooth jerk; there was a barely perceptible ripple as each picked his target.
"Fire!" His saber slashed down.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. Like five blurred shots, very loud walking down the line from the left; three hundred fifteen rifles firing, the sixty-man half-companies ripple volleying. Very crisp, the sound of long practice. All along the Squadron front men and dogs went down in threshing tangles. A cloud of smoke rose from the line, drifting up into the flickering velvet-silver leaves of the olive trees. A few last dactosauroids fluttered up with it.
"Aim!" The rear rank's rifles came up in unison; the front were working the levers of their weapons and reaching back to the bandolier for a fresh round to push into the breech. Clatter and snap amid the shouting and echoes. Six hundred yards.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. A horizontal comb of red tongues reaching out for the enemy. The whole formation staggered; it was turning into a C with the open end pointed at the ridge, as the solid bar of volley fire punched into the middle of it like a fist. Dead men and dogs were piling up all across the frontage covered by the Slashers' line, but there were too many Squadrones, too many swinging wide around the barrier of flesh.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. You couldn't fault their courage, at least; there must be hundreds dead and more wounded, but the dismounted were coming on at a run, leveling their flintlocks, more pushing up on either side, and new bands galloping full-tilt to join them.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. A bit of a stutter in the line now; if the Squadrones got to handstrokes his command would be chopped into dogmeat in less than a minute. Four hundred yards . . .
The trumpet sounded, and the dogs knew the call as well as the men. They surged erect under their riders and wheeled; the whole formation was moving back at a trot in a few seconds. A huge bellow of triumph came from behind them, as the Squadron force poured forward. Thiddo glanced to either side; the formation was tight and the men were keeping their dogs well in hand, as some of the shock of betrayal faded. Most of the men were riding with their rifles in their right hands, the lever down to let air cool the barrel and chamber. Extraction-jams were the great weakness of the Armory rifle, the fragile brass cartridges ripping when softened by heat or coming loose from the iron base. A few men were hammering at the levers with knife-hilts or trying to pick the cooling metal scraps out of the breech with the points as they rode.
Ahead of them the cannon had drawn up; they flashed as the Slashers reached the flat ground below the ridge. Men ducked as the shells went by overhead. This was extreme range, and if someone had turned a time-fuse improperly—or if the trail of powder in it burned a little too fast . . .
Thiddo looked behind. The ridgeline was a mass of men, many halting with screams as they heard the shells again; the three airbursts speckled the front behind them. Six hundred meters gap, and they would push it to three times that by the time they got to the guns and wheeled to sting their enemies again. Ahead, Istban had managed to draw up nearly two companies of his Dragoons off to one side from the Slashers' line of retreat, so he could take the Squadrones in enfilade and open fire while the battalion covered the last thousand meters.
"Peydro!" he shouted. Senior Lieutenant Peydro Belagez angled his galloping dog over beside the battalion commander. "Messengers to Zahpata and Messer Raj, verbal reports."
Another flight of shells went overhead and cracked open their loads of hissing metal. The Squadron might be chasing him and the Slashers, but they would pay for the privilege.