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CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

"There's something very familiar about this," Honal said. "And I'm getting tired of running away from these fellows."


"Shut up and spur!" Rastar laughed. The wood line was rapidly approaching, and he hoped everything was in place. If it wasn't, things were about to get interesting.


Behind them, the Boman host was still pouring out of the city. It was going to take a while to get them all out, even with the three huge gates in Sindi's northern wall, but at least ten or fifteen thousand were already outside the fortifications. Rastar was relieved—and a bit surprised—to see that so many of the bastards were already coming after his troopers. He and Pahner had both expected a relatively small force to be sent out at first, and they'd figured that the rest of the horde would sit still until the original pursuit force suffered a mischief. But the Boman seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, and from the looks of things, at least sixty or seventy percent of all the warriors in Sindi intended to go chasing after a mere three hundred Therdan and Sheffan cavalry. It didn't seem fair.


"Horns!" Rastar called as they approached the edge of the jungle. The road, such as it was, continued on under the dense trees and tangled lianas, a muddy track that had been the main route to their former homes. In better days, it had seen regular caravans carrying the raw products of the Boman, leather and drugs mainly, to the south, and the return flow of manufactured products—jewelry and the very weapons the cavalry now faced.


The cavalry responded instantly to the call of the horns, narrowing into a double line as it approached the wood line.


"I can see the spare mounts," Honal called. "Now to get it stuck in!"


The two leaders broke to either side of the road, and Rastar dismounted from his wearied civan as the rest of the troopers of his "bait force" thundered past them with a yell.


"Time to pock them all!" Rastar shouted to them, swinging up into the saddle of a fresh mount.


"Give 'em hell, Sir!" one of the troopers called back, still headed for where their own remounts waited. "We'll be right behind you!"


"Up the banners!" Rastar bellowed in a grunt of laughter. "Let's get it stuck in!"


"Up the banners!" Honal passed on the order in a voice fit to wake a dozen generations of the dead as he bounded up onto a fresh civan of his own. He drew the first pair of his revolvers and raised them overhead.


"SHEFFAN!" he howled like a hunting atul-grak, and the voices of four thousand additional heavy cavalry thundered their own deep warcries as they burst out of the edge of the jungle behind him.


* * *


"Aha!" Camsan's head came up as the baying voices sliced through the pattering rain and he recognized the standards at the head of the charging force. "That's what this is all about."


"It's that stupid, gutless prince who led the escape from Therdan when he ran away," one of his henchmen grunted as he, too, recognized the banners. "Good. It's time to finish that line off once and for all."


The war leader gazed across at the standard of fallen Therdan, coming at him through the rain, and felt considerably less sanguine than the subchief.


"His uncle wasn't so easy to kill . . . or gutless," he pointed out. "Neither was his father, and I think we're about to get mauled. But you're right—we'll hunt them down at our leisure now. There's not much else to do. Besides, if we don't kill them now, they'll just be back next week."


Camsan made no effort to coordinate the actual attack. There would have been no point in trying, since Boman warriors in hot pursuit of a foe did not respond well to direction. The two or three thousand arquebusiers had already fallen begrudgingly back from the front ranks, since the rain made their matchlocks effectively useless, but the rest of the host only quickened its pace.


Camsan was right about what was going to happen to his leading warriors, but not even he realized how bad it was actually going to be. The Boman were old hands at fighting League cavalry, and they should have known better, but they were also individualists who fought as individuals. And, as almost always happened when the enemy ran away from them, they were more concerned with overtaking their fleeing foes before anyone else caught up and stole the honor of the attack from them than they were with maintaining anything remotely like a formation. The first five or six thousand out of the city gates had opened a relatively wide gap between themselves and their fellows as they pounded through the rain after Rastar's troopers, and—as also happened with unhappy frequency—they were about to get reamed when the "fleeing" cavalry turned on them, because none of their fellow clansmen were in range to support them.


It was all rather depressing to Camsan, who'd spent the last half year fighting an uphill battle to teach his tribesmen at least some modicum of caution and discipline, but it was hardly surprising. And to be fair to his warriors, they knew exactly what was going to happen. But they also knew that the rain would take most of the Northerners' wheel locks out of action, and they still boasted half again the cavalry's numbers. They were going to take losses, but they would also inflict losses, and they should be able to at least keep the enemy occupied and pinned down until their slower compatriots could catch up. Besides, this would be their first opportunity to kill something in almost five months, and they bellowed in hungry anticipation.


Some of that anticipation turned to surprise moments later, when the charging cavalry opened fire despite the rain. Mounted troops' wheel locks usually worked at least a little better than matchlocks in typical rain conditions, but these cavalry troopers' weapons weren't working "a little" better. They were working a lot better, and Camsan grunted a curse as he watched bullets slam through his warriors. The League cavalry's fire was much heavier than normal, and despite the bounding gait of the bipedal civan, it was also damnably accurate.


"How the hell are they firing those damned things in the rain?" Camsan demanded as he and the rest of the main body ran after the vanguard, and then snarled a fresh curse as Hirin R'Esa, chieftain of the Ualtha and one of the war leader's staunchest supporters, went down with a fist-sized hole in his chest. "However they're doing it, I'm glad they don't have more of them!"


"It won't do them much good now," his henchman replied with a feral grin. "They're down to ax range, now."


* * *


"What's that prayer Roger taught you?" Rastar grunted as he holstered his smoking revolvers.


" 'Gods, for what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful,' " Honal shouted back. He grinned in the human way, bare-toothed in the rain, as the troopers around him laughed.


"Whatever," Rastar muttered as he couched his lance. The rain of axes was tearing holes in his ranks, and he wasn't prepared to take too many casualties in what was really nothing but a giant feint.


The cavalry slammed into the first rank of the barbarians and carried them away. The Boman were already shocked and disordered by the massed pistol fire. Rastar's troopers had discharged well over twenty thousand rounds of twenty-millimeter fire into them. Firing from the back of a moving civan had never done much for accuracy, but the Boman had been a big target, and the avalanche of pistol bullets had killed almost a third of their front rank outright and wounded even more of them.


The Northerners' long lances easily took out the rest of the first rank. Snarling, war-trained civan slashed and tore as they rode over the wounded, snapping off arms and even heads with vicious delight, and the Broman howls of anticipation of a moment before became shrieks of raw agony as the survivors of Therdan and Sheffan wreaked bloody revenge. Almost better, at least half of Rastar's troopers managed to recover their lances as they slammed through the front rank, and they used them to good effect on the next, slaughtering the barbarians in front of them. And then the cavalry broke through into the gap between the Broman main body and what had been the vanguard. Two-thirds or more of that vanguard were now corpses, and aside from a few who'd been taken by battle frenzy, most of the survivors were running as hard as they could.


By Rastar's most conservative estimate, his four thousand men must have killed at least that many barbarians, and the shrieks of rage and hatred from the rest of the Boman host were music to his ears. Clearly, he and his troopers had accomplished their main goal; whatever happened now, the barbarians would never stop chasing them. Typical Boman bloody-mindedness would see to that, but it never hurt to make sure they got the hint, and Clande and the rest of the reserve were waiting to do just that . . . assuming that he and Honal could get their men back on the trail before the next wave of barbarians caught up to them. That next wave was larger—much larger—and for all their frenzy, Boman weren't stupid enough to offer him another opportunity like the last one. No, this wave would concentrate mainly on pinning the cavalry while other warriors swept around on their flanks, and that meant it was time to go.


"Back!" he shouted. "Sound the horns! Back to the forest. Time to run for it!"


His troopers had already managed the hardest part of the maneuver; they hadn't allowed themselves to be sucked into chasing down the fleeing survivors of their first clash. Now they responded instantly to the horn calls and wheeled once more to thunder back up the muddy road towards the woods.


"This is where it gets tricky!" Honal shouted beside him.


"Get to the front. Don't let anything slow us down," Rastar ordered, and Honal nodded acknowledgment and slapped his spurs to his civan. Rastar watched him go and crossed the fingers of his left true-hand in yet another gesture acquired from the humans. Timing, he thought, was everything.


The cavalry's lead ranks bogged up a bit as they reached the opening in the woods, but they were all veterans who'd been in nearly continuous battle for half a Mardukan year. Their commanders had learned their own trade well and added the benefits of human notions of discipline to their own, and they handled the maneuver with an aplomb that would have been frankly amazing before the long war against the Boman. Troops interleaved with troops, and squadrons formed into columns, until all three thousand-plus surviving riders were pounding at a gallop down the mud-slick track.


They got themselves sorted out not a moment too soon, for the second wave of Boman had kept right on coming, absorbing the fragments of the first wave as it came. The front ranks of at least twelve thousand howling warriors were fewer than fifty meters behind the rearmost trooper, and Rastar—holding his position near the rear of the column—felt a moment of intense anxiety. The barbarians were close enough to keep up a shower of throwing axes, although their accuracy left a great deal to be desired, and the slower pace the civan were forced to adopt as they thundered along in close proximity was allowing the Boman warriors to close the remaining range slowly.


"This is where some artillery would have been nice," he muttered to himself. But if he didn't have field guns, then he had the next best thing . . . assuming that it worked.


An ax clanged off of his backplate, and he gave his mount the spurs, leaning forward in the saddle to urge the beast onward. Another handful of his men went down, but only a handful, and the Boman were beginning to slow themselves down in turn as they packed solid in the relatively narrow slot of the track. Which was exactly what Rastar wanted and the humans had planned on.


The explosions, when they came, were like the end of the world. Rastar had never heard of "directional mines" or "claymores" before the humans came along, but he'd seen them tested in K'Vaern's Cove. It was amazing how murderous such a relatively simple concept could be, but not even the tests he'd observed had prepared him for the reality of what a few score old musket balls packed atop a half-sedant or so of gunpowder could do.


Clande and his reserves had been busy while Rastar and Honal trolled for Boman, and the trail was lined on either side with the infernal human devices. The troopers had placed one every two meters, and there were almost two hundred of them. The Boman were running three and four abreast as they pursued their enemies, and over six hundred of them were in the kill zone when Clande touched off the fuse and the rolling explosions marched down the trail to envelop them.


There were, perhaps, a dozen survivors.


Six hundred, or even six thousand, casualties were scarcely a fleabite against the total numbers of the barbarian host, but not even the Boman were immune to the sheer shock and horror of such heavy losses so instantaneously inflicted. The howling war cries turned to screams and shrieks, and the headlong pursuit slithered to a broken-backed halt amid the bodies and bits of bodies, shattered tree trunks and fallen branches, and the drifting smoke that shrouded the hell-spawned carnage of the ambush.


Rastar reined his civan back to a walk, looking over his shoulder at the destruction and agony, and bared his teeth in a hungry, human-style smile. Another small payment on the enormous debt Therdan owed the Boman, he thought viciously, and stood in the human-designed stirrups he and his troopers had adopted.


"Kiss my ass, you Boman pussies!" he shouted, slapping his rear end. "See you in Therdan—and bring your pocking friends!"


* * *


"What in the name of all the demons was that?" Camsan's henchman demanded as the two Boman stopped in stunned disbelief. The war leader had been no more than forty or fifty meters outside the kill zone, and he shook his head, half-deafened by the unexpected fury of the explosions.


He'd never imagined anything like the torn and mangled pieces of what had been warriors—certainly not that such carnage could be wreaked in an eyeblink! He stared at the wreckage for several moments, then shook himself again as he felt the matching consternation and disbelief of the warriors surrounding him.


He looked around quickly. The morning had not gone well. He and his warriors had killed perhaps two hundred of the shit-sitter cavalry, but their own losses had easily been fifteen or twenty times as great, and the sheer shock of this last hammer blow only made the pain of their casualties bite deeper. The clans had lost far more men in taking any one of the shit-sitter cities he'd conquered, but losses were expected when storming sheer stone walls. This was something else, and he recognized its potentially deadly effect on his warriors' morale.


"It was clever of the iron heads," he grated loudly enough to be clearly heard as he made himself walk forward into the blood and torn flesh. "Clever, but only gunpowder, not magic or demons. This is why they wanted us to follow them."


"Exactly as you did," a subchief accused, and Camsan turned slowly to face him. The war leader said nothing, only looked the subchief in the eye, and then Camsan's battle ax, the ceremonial ax of the paramount war leader, flashed up in a lethal arc and the subchief's head thumped heavily into the bloody mud of the track.


The silence which followed its impact was profound, and Camsan turned in place, sweeping every warrior in range with his hard gaze.


"For months you've whined and complained like children deprived of sweets because I would not lead you to battle," he said flatly. "I've warned you again and again that K'Vaern's Cove will be no Sindi—that the Cove's walls are high, and its people cunning. And for warning you, I have been repaid with mutters that I am no fit war leader. I, who took Therdan and crushed the League under our feet. I, who took D'Sley and even fabled Sindi! I, who have led you to triumphs our sires, and their sires, and their sires before them, never dreamed of!


"And now, when the iron heads rode around the walls shouting insults at you, and you demanded that we go forth and take their horns, you cry like little children because I gave you what you wished. I see that the warriors of the Boman are become women!"


He felt their sullen resentment, but none dared to meet his iron gaze, and he spat on the ground.


"There's no magic here, only cunning from our enemies and the foolishness of warriors who can see no response to any challenge but to rush to meet it. Do not blame me for the consequences of your own rashness! And don't think for an instant that any man who questions my decisions and my orders again will not be atul meat before nightfall!"


He kicked the dead subchief's head contemptuously off of the trail, and glared at all of them, one warrior staring down the shock and defiance of thirty thousand others, and the fiery elixir of his own power as he crushed any challenge to his authority filled him like fine wine. The silence stretched out, singing with tension, until, finally, he grunted in satisfaction at their submission.


"Now," he went on then, his voice calmer and more businesslike, "it's clear that the iron heads have returned to plague us, and this—" he gestured at the chaos of the ambush site "—proves that the K'Vaernian shit-sitters are supplying them with new weapons. There can be no more than a few thousand iron heads left in all the world after the feasting of our axes in their cities, but it would seem that the K'Vaernians mean to use them to bite at us. No doubt they hope to lure us into traps and ambushes like this one again and again. Perhaps they even believe that they can somehow drive us into leaving the Cove unburned if they strike us often enough.


"But we are the Boman! We are the warriors of the North, the power of the wind itself, and we will hammer our enemies into dust! We won't give these iron heads the time to sting us again and again, won't let them choose the moment at which they will attack us. Mnb Trag and his clan hold Sindi behind us, and the K'Vaernians will never risk their own precious hides beyond the safety of their walls. Nor could all the iron heads who still live take the walls against Trag and his warriors. Even the full strength of the K'Vaernians would require a siege to break those defenses, and the iron heads will have no chance even to try if we stay close upon their heels. They know that as well as we do, too, and so they will have spare mounts hidden ahead somewhere. They know us of old, even as we know them, and so they know that without such remounts they will never outdistance the Boman in the long run. They think to leave us behind here, at the beginning of the chase, or to exhaust us until we give up, but their hope is in vain, for we will take the time for a true basik hunt! You wish blood on your axes? Very well, I'll give it to you!"


He wheeled to the messengers who always attended upon the paramount war leader. Picked runners all, carefully chosen from their own clans and tribes, they waited only for a nod from him to dash off with messages to any of the clan leaders, and he waved them closer.


"These new toys of the iron heads," he said, careful to put only contempt into the word "toys" and to conceal the shock he himself still felt at their effectiveness, "will be far more dangerous if they're able to choose the time and place to use them against us. So you will go to the leaders of your clans, and you will summon them to the field. We will pursue the iron heads wherever they may go, and the other clans will join us, closing in and driving them like basik before the beaters. Even if still more of them wait out here somewhere, and even if all of them are gathered together in one place, we'll have the numbers and the strength to sweep them aside as if they were so many grains of sand. Let them flee where they will, even unto the ruins of Therdan and Sheffan themselves! There will be no escape, and we will overwhelm them even if they find some worthless fortification to hold against us!


"Go! Summon the clans, for we have enemies to kill!"


* * *


"Christ," Pahner said. "Thirty-two thousand? What did they leave?"


"Far less than that," Bogess opined. The Diaspran had become Pahner's chief of staff, for all intents and purposes, as his own forces were integrated firmly into the K'Vaernian force structure, and he frowned thoughtfully as he considered the LURPs' report. "Most of the warriors would have insisted on chasing the Northerners. The Boman and the Vasin are enemies of old, with so many scores to settle that no one on either side could possibly count them all up."


"Jin says there are still some wandering around in the fields," the Marine said, consulting his pad.


"Looting," Bistem Kar said with a wave. "They'll be gone by the time we land. And we'll be landing out of sight of them, anyway."


"Something's going to go wrong," Pahner said.


"Who now is taking council of his fears?" Bogess asked with a grunt of laughter.


"Not taking council, just worrying," Pahner grumped. "And where the hell did Roger get to?"


"Start to forget our real job there, Boss?" Julian asked with a grin, and glanced at the heads-up display on his helmet visor. "Reports have him with the forward cavalry screen on the D'Sley-Sindi road. Track, rather."


"Good," Pahner said. "He's staying back like I told him to." The Marine paused and frowned. "If the report is accurate, anyway."


* * *


"Hey, Gunny! How ya doing?" Roger said quietly.


Jin suppressed his start and turned to look at the prince. The dying light of afternoon revealed Roger, lying on his stomach, covered in a gill blanket and with his face coated with camouflage paint while he grinned at the gunny's jump.


"Any news?" he asked.


"Jesus, Sir," D'Estrees said. "You scared the shit out of me. You ever heard of giving a poor Marine with a loaded rifle a little warning?"


"Gotta keep that old situational awareness, Corporal," the unrepentant prince said. "The night will soon be alive with little creepy-crawlies." He turned back to Jin. "So, what's happening?"


"Rastar says they're well into the chase," Jin replied. "The cavalry's about twelve klicks to the north, with the Boman from Sindi in hot pursuit. And it looks like this Camsan fellow's taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker." The noncom patted the directional shotgun mike on the side of his helmet and grinned. "Gave a hell of a little speech after the claymores turned about two hundred meters worth of scummies into sausage filling, Sir. Sounded to me like he figures he got his dick caught in a drill press and the only way to keep somebody from challenging his position is to go personally nail Rastar's horns up on a wall somewhere."


"So he called in the other clans?"


"That he did, Your Highness, that he did. I just hope Rastar and Honal are half as good as they think they are, 'cause if those bastards ever do catch up with them, it's gonna be ugly."


"Don't sweat it, Gunny," Roger advised. "As a matter of fact, Rastar is probably at least two thirds as good as he thinks he is. Besides, we only gave him enough claymores for one good ambush. Didn't want him getting too creative on us, after all! So any other little unpleasantries he wants to send the Boman are going to have to come out of his rifles and revolvers, which ought to encourage him not to let them get too close." The prince shook his head. "He'll play tag with them, just like we planned, until we're ready for them to head on home, and it looks like they'll be bringing all their friends with them when they come."


"Hope so," Jin said, and waved in the direction of Sindi's barely visible walls. "Meanwhile, there's nothing stirring in Sindi Town."


"Are you out here by yourself, Sir?" D'Estrees asked.


"I dropped most of the troops about four kilometers back and came forward with half a troop of cavalry. They're back about a half klick."


"Who's in the group, Sir?" The gunnery sergeant asked. "Just Mardukans?"


"Four hundred cavalry from Chindar, four hundred or so infantry from the pikes, and Beckley's team. Oh, and Cord and Matsugae."


"You brought Kostas?" D'Estrees asked. "Don't go getting our cook killed, Sir!"


"I told him he ought to stay home in the Cove, where it was safe," Roger said with a grin, "but he pointed out that since the army now had real cooks, he could go back to being my valet. 'Just because you're sleeping on the ground doesn't mean we can't keep up appearances.' "


"Ha, that's Kostas!" Jin said. "How long you going to stay, Sir?"


"You mean potentially giving away your hide? Not long—I can take a hint. I'll head back to the troops in a minute. I just wanted to look at the city."


"What're you going to call them?" the corporal asked.


"The Mardukans?" Roger gave a quiet chuckle. "I don't know. Maybe 'Her Majesty's Own Mardukan Guards'? Whatever I call them, I need to be getting back before they come looking for me."


"Take care, Your Highness," Jin said. "And for Vishnu's sake, keep your head down and out of the line of fire."


"Will do, Gunny," the prince said. "See you in Sindi."


 


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