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CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The gentle current of the river was barely enough to make the barge bob, but the war civan was having none of it.


"Get on there, you son of a bitch!" Honal snarled, but the civan was remarkably impervious to his rider's gentle encouragement. Finally, the cavalry commander gave up. "Get some ropes!"


Enough lines on the horse-ostrich and enough hands on the lines finally managed to drag the recalcitrant beast onto the barge.


"Last one, Rastar!"


"Good, we're already behind schedule," the Northern prince replied, and turned to look over his shoulder as something moved up behind him.


"Good luck, you two," Roger said. The prince was riding his huge war pagee again, with that weird creature from the far lands and his war slave up on her back. It was fortunate indeed, Rastar reflected, that the captain's plan didn't require Roger to cross the river. Getting that huge beast on a barge would have been far worse than unpleasant.


The last prince of fallen Therdan looked past the human and his odd companions to the troop of cavalry following along behind the pagee. Chim Pri, the troop leader, was a cousin of sorts, a distant one, but he'd shown great promise on the retreat and in Diaspra. He also worshiped the ground Roger strode on, so detailing his troop as bodyguards—whatever the captain might call it—had been an easy decision.


Rastar was hard put not to grunt in laughter at the sight of the brand-new banner snapping in the breeze beside Patty. It had been Honal's idea to have the thing made, but Rastar had gotten behind and pushed once his cousin suggested it. It hadn't been easy to get it made without Roger's discovering that they were up to something, but the expression on the prince's face when it was formally presented had made all of the secrecy and skulking about eminently worthwhile. Rastar hadn't been certain whether Roger wanted to laugh or shoot them on the spot, which was more or less what he'd expected. What he hadn't expected was the fierce pride the prince's new personal cavalry troop took in their banner.


Rastar watched the stiff breeze blow the dianda standard straight out to display the basik head. Of course, it didn't depict quite a standard basik. This one lacked the timidly inoffensive and stupid expression of the original, and the mouthful of needle-sharp fangs—clearly exposed in a particularly nasty-looking human-style grin—were hardly part of the issue equipment of the garden-variety basik.


On the other hand, they went very well with the incredibly deadly basik who commanded the cavalry riding under it.


"Good luck yourself," Rastar told him now. "And try not to get killed. Captain Pahner would do all manner of incredibly painful things to me if you did something that stupid."


"Coward," Roger said, and Rastar shook a playful fist up at him.


"Just make sure you're ready when we come scampering back," Honal put in with a grunt of laughter.


"We will be," Roger said. "I swear it."


Rastar stuck out a true-hand, and Roger leaned down to take it.


"Keep your powder dry," the human said in a voice which was only half-teasing.


"We will." The Northern prince spurred his war civan, and the beast easily trotted down the planks onto the barge beside Honal's recalcitrant mount. "See you in Sindi."


* * *


"No!" Kny Camsan, paramount war leader of the Boman, slammed a fisted true-hand onto the table hard enough to send half the cups flying into the air and spill wine everywhere. Not that it mattered particularly, for the floor of the former throne room was well over a centimeter deep in food and other debris. The once splendid chamber reeked like a midden, but the barbarians lying on mats of straw atop the mire paid no more attention to the muck than they did to the stench.


"We have those K'Vaernian bastards right where we want them," the war leader continued in grating tones, "and I, for one, have no intention of throwing myself at their walls until they're a hell of a lot weaker than they are right now. I am not letting anyone repeat Therdan."


There was a mutter of agreement at that. The war leader who'd decided that Therdan could simply be overrun with enough bodies had died in the second wave, but Boman in fighting frenzy weren't precisely noted for tactical flexibility, and the waves had continued while the tribal leaders argued over who would replace him. And while they argued, nearly a tenth part of the combined clans had died.


"K'Vaern's Cove isn't Therdan," Knitz De'n argued. "And they're just sitting there like knivet in a burrow. They obviously aren't going to send forces out, and if they won't come out to fight, we should strike them now. Instead, we sit in our own shit in this foul city when we should be on the trail to war, not hiding behind walls!"


"He has a point," Mnb Trag said mildly. The old chieftain was Camsan's closest adviser, but he was also smart enough to appear receptive to the suggestions and demands of others. It was, as he'd shown Camsan, one of the most effective ways to defuse those demands. Unfortunately, it worked better for an adviser or the chieftain of a single clan than it did for a paramount war leader, and Camsan glowered at De'n.


"Let the damned shit-sitters break their teeth on walls for a change!" he shot back. "If you want to attack K'Vaern's Cove, go ahead, but I shall remain here until they're on their knees. And when they're weak enough, then we'll destroy that city and return to our homes. That's what we swore—that's what you swore—to do. To remain as long as it took to destroy the Southerners once and for all."


"And that's what we want to do!" Knitz De'n snapped. "Let the shit-sitters hide inside their walls if they want—we are the warriors of the Boman!"


The women came out with new cups of wine and more cooked meat. The herds of turom and pagee which had supported the city now feasted on its fields, and the Boman feasted on them. When they were gone, the clans would have to move as well, but not yet. And when they did move, Camsan intended to accomplish something no other Boman chieftain had ever accomplished. Which, of course, was the true reason so many of the other clans' women and children were here at Sindi under the "protection" of his own clan and its closest allies.


Not that he was prepared to explain any of that to De'n. The young firebrand was too arrogant and ambitious to be admitted to all of Camsan's plans. Unfortunately, Camsan knew De'n spoke for a growing fraction of even those warriors in Sindi, so he dared not simply ignore him, either.


"Perhaps there's some point to your argument," the war leader told the younger tribesman as one of the women replaced his own wine cup. "I won't rush to attack the walls of K'Vaern's Cove, but we are Boman, and even the sharpest ax grows dull if it's allowed to rust too long upon the wall. I would not have you grow rusty when I'll soon have need of your strong arm, Knitz De'n, and there are reports of League cavalry on the land road from K'Vaern's Cove to D'Sley. Why don't you take your band and go see what's happening? If you find any of those League shit-sitters, kill them for us, and take their goods for your own. Then check D'Sley and make sure the shit-sitters aren't trying to rebuild it or something."


De'n looked at him for a long moment, obviously aware that he was about to be dispatched on a task which was little more than make-work designed to get him out from under Camsan's feet. Yet his own demands for a more active policy left him little choice but to obey, and so he stood and walked out without another word.


Mnb Trag rubbed his horns as he watched him go.


"We do need to do something soon," Trag said much more quietly to Camsan. "He's not the only one complaining."


"I know he's not," Camsan responded, equally quietly. "And I also know that if we sit here long enough, the plague demons will begin to carry off our warriors." The nomadic Boman had developed very little of the resistance to diseases which city dwellers required, particularly on a planet like Marduk, where no one had ever heard of the germ theory of disease or the necessity for public hygiene. "But if our prisoners spoke truthfully, then K'Vaern's Cove isn't nearly so well supplied as we'd feared, now is it? And," the war leader added with an evil chuckle, "I feel confident somehow that they were truthful with us, don't you?"


It was Trag's turn to chuckle. The greatest prize the Boman had taken in their entire campaign had been the capture of Tor Cant, the shit-sitter whose treachery had united the clans—however temporarily—at last. It was hard to believe that even he could have been stupid enough to allow himself to be taken alive, but Trag had come to the conclusion that there was nothing Tor Cant hadn't been stupid enough to do. It was a pity, in some ways, because for all of his stupidity the one-time Despot of Sindi had possessed a certain devious cunning. He might have amounted to something if he'd had a single sekr of brain or even a trace of backbone to go with that quality.


Fortunately for the Boman, he'd had neither. It had taken him almost six days to die, but he'd told them everything they could ever have wanted to know about his betrayals of his fellow shit-sitters before the first iron had even begun to glow. Most of the "councilors" and advisers they'd captured with him had taken their cue from their despot . . . not that their efforts to buy their lives with their information had worked, of course. But it did mean that Kny Camsan knew all there was to know about both the strengths and weaknesses of his last remaining foes.


"I share your confidence in their . . . honesty," Trag said after a moment, "and the K'Vaernian Guard is far too small to be a threat in the field. All they can do is hold their walls, and they won't be able to do even that once starvation sets in properly. But their accursed navy remains intact. Can we be certain that they'll be unable to fill their granaries?"


"From where?" Camsan chuckled scornfully. "We've destroyed all of the other shit-sitter cities around the sea and throughout the Tam Valley, and the other clans sit on their fields and devour their animals. All they can offer K'Vaern's Cove is more mouths to feed and no food to feed them with." He clapped hands in a gesture of negation. "No, Trag, hunger will begin to bite them long before the demons weaken us. Then they'll come out and fight, or they'll go aboard their stinking boats and flee, and either way, we'll take their city and burn it to the ground."


"And the League cavalry?" Trag asked.


"We'll see," the war leader said, taking a bite of half-raw civan. "True, the iron heads had more guts than these worthless Southerners, but there can't be many of them left. I doubt there's anything to the rumors, but we'll see. And if there isn't, we'll send some of the youngsters out to K'Vaern's Cove to see how it's defended. If it looks weak, or if they're beginning to run low on food already, we'll put in an attack to probe their defenses. But I am not going to repeat Therdan."


Not, at least, until I've taken K'Vaern's Cove, as well . . . and made my position as paramount war leader something more permanent, he added silently. He didn't say it aloud, although that wasn't because he distrusted Trag. His older ally knew all about his plans, he was sure, despite the fact that they had never openly discussed them, and if Trag had disapproved, one of them would already be dead.


"All right," Trag said after only the briefest moment, "but be warned. Hungry or not, those damned K'Vaernians have always been too tricky to make me happy."


* * *


"I can't believe we've gotten this close without these idiots even guessing we're here," Honal said.


After being ferried across the river, the cavalry had taken back trails up to a point just outside Sindi. Thanks to the reports from the Marine long-range reconnaissance patrols, the Northerners had been able to avoid the scattered clusters of Boman on the north side of the river between D'Sley and Sindi. Not that there'd been many of those clusters to avoid.


Sindi, the undisputed queen of the upper Tam, had originally been built on the south side of the river, but it had long since spread to both banks, taking its impressively fortified walls with it. Before the Boman came, it had been surrounded by vast fields of barleyrice, which the constant rains were rapidly destroying, now that no one tended them any longer. But its true wealth had lain in the fact that it had controlled the only bridge across the river for hurtongs. The bridge itself was a massive stone construction at the heart of the city, wide enough for four pagee or twenty warriors abreast, whose completion, generations before, had really begun the history of Sindi.


Although Sindi had drawn most of its wealth and power from its position on the Tam, the city was actually located at the confluence of three rivers. A smaller stream, the Stell, flowed into the Tam on the western side of the city, where the road to D'Sley crossed it on a narrow stone bridge and then continued on through spreading fields to the distant jungle. The third river, the Thorm, joined the Tam just upstream from the city, flowing down from the northeast and eventually becoming unnavigable not far from one of the Northern League cities.


The cavalry troopers had turned progressively more grim as they drew closer to the destroyed cities which had been their homes, but Rastar wasn't worried. He knew they were fully focused on their target, and he was confident that they understood the mission brief. Which seemed to be working out almost perfectly—so far, at least—he told himself, because Honal was right. The Boman clearly didn't have a clue that they were anywhere near. Before the barbarian invasion, there would have been Sindi cavalry patrols this far out to spot them, or at least workers in the fields, but now there was nothing at all on the north side of the river beyond the city gates themselves. All of the field huts had been burned, and nothing moved here but an occasional basik.


So far, so good.


"It's a hurtong to the gates," Rastar said. "Clande, your group will stop here and hold. Get the surprise set up along the trail, and don't let anybody we may have missed sneak up behind us, or we're all pocked."


"Yes, Rastar." The young cousin might have argued once that rear area security was hardly the job of a warrior. But the only survivors of the League of the North were those who'd learned the lessons which had made their survival possible, and the hotheaded "warrior" who would once have argued was one with last season's rains.


"The rest of you," Rastar went on, sweeping Honal's subordinate officers with his eyes, "remember why we're here, and don't get too enthusiastic. It's not like there's all that much we can really do if they're hiding inside the city, after all! We'll make a charge at the gate and see if that works. It probably won't, so we'll put some grapnels on the walls. When they start throwing their damned axes, shoot a few of them—but don't, for the gods' sake, let them realize how effective the rifles and revolvers are. When they get their shit together, we back off and taunt."


"We've heard this before, Rastar," Honal said patiently and squinted up into the gathering light as the morning drizzle began. "Let's go."


The last prince of Therdan looked at his cousin and nodded.


"Let's all be charming lures, shall we?"


"Absolutely," Honal said. "Sheffan! Front!"


* * *


"Julian," Gunny Jin whispered into his radio, "give me the Old Man."


"Pahner here."


"The cavalry are starting the demonstration, Sir."


"Good. Give me an update if the situation changes."


* * *


The massive gates shrugged off the thunderous explosion with scarcely a quiver.


"Oh, very nice," Rastar said. "They should be convinced they're impregnable now."


"Yes," Honal agreed. "And so far, we haven't even lost anyone."


That, Rastar knew, would change as soon as the sun rose above the eternal clouds. Already, the Boman could be seen on top of the high wall, running around without apparent direction. A few groups of cavalry had gotten grapnels up on the battlements and were swarming, slowly and carefully, up the lines. As the two commanders watched, a group of barbarians got one of the heavy hook-and-line arrangements unfastened and hurled it over the side. The grapnel, fortunately, didn't hit anyone, but the shower of throwing axes which followed it emptied a few saddles. Nor had all the Boman activity been as pointless as it had looked, and more than one Northerner flinched as a pair of massive hooped bombards fired from a bastion of the main gate in a huge belch of lurid flame and thick smoke. Fortunately, the Boman gunners had only a vague notion of how artillery was supposed to work, and they hit nothing. The arquebusiers who'd finally begun assembling in their covered positions were another matter, however. They were no more accurate than the bombards, individually, but there were far more of them, and more saddles began to empty, while here and there a civan went down bellowing in pain.


"Time to call them back," Rastar ordered.


"Got it."


The high call of the glitchen horn rang out through the rain, signaling for the cavalry to pull away from the walls and out of ax range, and Rastar watched with an approving eye as his troopers obeyed.


"Now to do the real work," he said with a grunt of laughter.


* * *


"They're taunting us," Mnb Trag said.


"Yes," Camsan agreed. "But why are they taunting us?"


The Northerner cavalry had been at it all morning. Their initial attack had been a complete failure—the bags of gunpowder had barely even scratched the gates. But the small band hadn't given up, though precisely what the idiots thought they could accomplish was beyond Camsan. They'd been riding around the walls and hurling taunts at the guards for the last few hours. No scatological or genealogical detail had been left out of the suggestions which could be clearly heard on the walls, and the taunts were working, judging by the furious anger of his warriors.


"They want us to chase them," Camsan said, "so we won't."


He turned to look back over the city with a proprietary eye. Although it had taken some damage in the sack, it was still the crown jewel of the upper Tam, with rank on rank of low stone houses rising up the central hill to the citadel. Whatever else anyone could say, he had taken Sindi, and the horns of that hated bastard Cant. Nobody was going to take either of those accomplishments away from him, and he'd already decided that Sindi would make an appropriate capital for the new, powerful empire which would shortly replace the weak and gutless shit-sitters who had dared to challenge the Boman clans.


But his contemplation of the future was interrupted when Trag gave a handclap of negation.


"I don't think you have that choice," the older chieftain told him, and pounded on a merlon of the granite wall with one false-hand. "If you sit here much longer, looking like you're afraid to face a couple of hundred League shits in the open, you might not have a position by tomorrow."


"That bad?" the war leader asked his adviser. Trag grunted, and as Camsan turned to look at the warriors around them, he was forced to admit that his ally might have a point. "All right, take the Tarnt'e and go chase them down. There was never a group of cavalry Boman couldn't run into the ground—not even old, worn out Boman," he added with a grunt of laughter, but Trag didn't join his amusement.


"I don't think that will work either," he said somberly. "If I go out, by the time I get back, you'll have been deposed, and Knitz De'n will have taken your place."


"But if we do what De'n wants and storm K'Vaern's Cove head on, it will be the death of thousands of them," Camsan said. "Do they want that?"


"No," the older chieftain said, "but most of them figure it'll be someone else who does the dying. Besides, what they really want, most of them, is to return to their villages. But we made this stupid pact to destroy all the cities of the south, which means they can't go yet, so they want to destroy K'Vaern's Cove and get it over with. They're frustrated, and that's why they want to gut these iron head pukes."


"Don't they realize that the iron heads wouldn't be riding around out there all by themselves unless they wanted us to come out and chase them? There has to be a reason they want to lure us away from the city, Mnb."


"Of course there does, and most of our warriors know it. But if they can't burn K'Vaern's Cove to the ground, then killing these Northerners will have to do. They know perfectly well that the Northerners want them to come out from behind the walls, and they don't care. At least it would be an honorable battle. Besides, there's only three or four hundred of them."


"That's exactly my point," Camsan said. "The Tarnt'e alone would be more than enough to crush them all."


"That's not the point," Trag replied patiently. "You have forty thousand warriors in this stinking city, all of whom want to kill something . . . and most of whom are starting to think thoughts you'd prefer they didn't. You think they don't know some of the other clans are beginning to mutter about how many of the women and children are here under our 'protection'?"


Camsan's eyes narrowed, and this time it was Trag who grunted a harsh laugh.


"Of course they do! Fortunately, most of them think you're only trying to keep the other clan leaders in line, and I think most of them actually admire your ruthlessness. It's what we need in a war leader. But our warriors are Boman, too, and their axes have been unbloodied too long. If you don't give them—all of them—a chance to kill something else, then they're going to start thinking very hard about killing you. Kny, you're one of the finest war leaders ever to think for the clans, and I believe you truly have the chance to accomplish what you and I both know you desire. But you don't pay enough attention to the way our warriors feel, and that's going to get you killed if you keep it up."


Trag didn't add that it would undoubtedly get him killed right alongside Camsan. Both of them knew it was true, but that didn't invalidate anything he'd just said. More than one Boman war leader had been removed by the clans if he seemed too timid, and the retirement of Boman war leaders was an . . . extremely permanent process.


"Oh, very well," Camsan said at last. "It's ridiculous to take so many to defeat so few—how many iron heads do the fools think there are to go around?—but you probably have a point. I'll give them their chance to kill something. But if I go out to play chase-the-basik in the woods, can you stay here with your tribe? At least I can trust you not to totally screw up."


"I can hold the city," the older chieftain agreed. "Besides, I have to admit that I'm a bit old for a civan chase."


* * *


Julian updated the situation map on his pad and transferred it to the captain.


"It's looking pretty good so far, Sir. The main Boman force is headed out the gates now. Only bad news is that we had another batch of barbs head southwest earlier—about two thousand. We don't have any idea where they were going or where they are at the moment."


Pahner tapped his foot on the barge deck and spat his chewed-up bisti root over the side.


"Have the cavalry screen echelon to the south. And throw the patrols out a little farther to keep an eye out for the strays. We need to make sure they don't show up at the wrong time."


"Not good," Kar said. "We're on a slim margin. If your 'strays' turn up during the attack, they'll make things difficult."


"Difficult, but not impossible," Pahner said. "Fog of war. You have to figure that something will go wrong even in the best case, and if that's the worst that happens, I'll be delighted. I'm more worried about them hitting us after the assault, anyway."


He looked out over the river. It was filled with barges and boats for over a kilometer in every direction as the army of K'Vaern's Cove made its slow way up river.


"If we get compromised from the north bank, we can land on the south side, where we've got the cavalry screen and the Marine LURPs to cover us. The only part I'm really worried about is the possibility of having this Camsan get word to his detachments too quickly and assemble the main host to come back while we're still landing, and even then the cavalry should slow them up long enough for us to finish landing or retreat."


"Or to get hit during the transfer," Bogess said quietly.


"We can break that part of the operation off at almost any time," Pahner replied with a shrug. "As long as Rastar does his job and the screen stays alert, we're golden."


 


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