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CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Mnb Trag looked out over the fields in the growing light. Somewhere to the north, he knew, were Camsan and the rest of the clans, perhaps closing in on the presumptuous iron heads even as Trag stood here on the walls of Sindi. It irked him immensely to be left behind, as if he were too old or lazy to go chase cavalry, yet he had to agree with Kny.


It was never wise to do what your enemy wanted you to do. Presumably that iron head cavalry had known the Boman would chase them, and presumably they'd also known that no heavy cavalry could outrun the Boman indefinitely. So there had to be a trap waiting for the host, and Camsan had been right to be wary.


Yet Trag knew that he had been correct, too. Trap or no trap, Camsan had no choice but to pursue the Northerners and destroy the challenge to his authority their mere presence represented. And whatever the iron heads had hoped to accomplish, they would fail in the end. No shit-sitter Southern army survived, aside from the relatively tiny force of the K'Vaernian Guard, and the Guard was far too weak to endanger any Boman force in the open field. So, in the end, the trappers must be trapped and destroyed. Judging by the dangerous deviousness of that first ambush, the K'Vaernians had obviously devised new weapons in a desperate attempt to make their League mercenaries more effective, and that undoubtedly meant casualties would be heavier than they ought to have been before the host managed to trap and destroy the iron heads, but their fate was ultimately sealed. And in their destruction, Camsan would add yet another triumph to the matchless string of victories he'd produced for the clans, and so further consolidate his grip upon the power he and Trag both knew lay almost within his grasp. "Barbarian" the shit-sitters called the Boman, and there was truth to the sneer, Trag admitted proudly. But "barbarians" could build empires, too.


Yet for all his satisfaction, something still felt wrong. He couldn't quite lay hold of what it was that concerned him, but it was there.


And then, as the light gathered, it became clear what it was.


A small host emerged from the forest on the D'Sley Road—small, but obviously much larger than any force the shit-sitters should possibly have been able to assemble. Block after block of infantry marched forward, moving in regular lines more precise than even those K'Vaern's Cove Guard bastards. He was too old to see what sort of weapons they carried at this range, but there were at least two shit-sitters for every warrior he still had in Sindi, and he had no doubt that they carried scaling ladders in plenty.


"Where did they come from?" one of his warriors gasped.


"K'Vaern's Cove," the chieftain answered. "I guess they must have put a sword into the hand of every shit-sitter who could see lightning or hear thunder and just brought them out." He grunted in laughter at the thought of the enemy's obligingness at bringing the soft, gutless—and untrained—city slugs into the sweep of his own ax. Still, it looked as if there were an awful lot of them.


"We should be able to pile them on the wall like bales of barleyrice," he said, "but it will be a fight to tell the grands about."


More and more of his fellow tribesmen gathered on the parapet as the regular ranks of shit-sitters assembled just out of bombard range. The groups walked in step, their odd march broken only when they crossed the small bridge over the Stell, and formed in neat blocks on the city's side of the stream.


"I've never seen spears that long," someone said. "You don't suppose those gutless Wespar were telling the truth when they said . . ."


The voice trailed off, and Trag grunted a deeper, harsher laugh at the edge of nervousness which had sharpened the remark.


"I've never put much faith in the lies Wespar pussies who got their asses kicked by a bunch of shit-sitters tell to cover the way they must've fucked up," the chieftain said. "And even if they were telling the truth, how would the same spears have gotten clear to K'Vaern's Cove this quickly?"


"You're probably right," one of his own tribesmen said, "but those really are awfully long pagee-stickers out there, Mnb."


"Maybe someone from the water boys told them how to scare the Wespar off," Trag scoffed, "but we aren't Wespar, are we? We're the Tranol'te! And even if we were Wespar, do you really think there's any way they could get something as long as those damned things up scaling ladders?" He laughed more loudly than ever.


"No, I don't," the tribesman said.


"Of course you don't," Trag said, and waved dismissively at the small army which had now taken up position in front of the gates on the northern side of the river, close enough that even Trag could see them clearly. "And I don't see any battering rams over there," he went on, "so there isn't really much they can do to us as long as we're not stupid enough to go out and meet them head-on, now is there?"


"I don't know, Mnb," the tribesman said. "We don't have enough warriors to man the walls. Not the way we ought to, anyway."


"Doesn't matter," Trag said confidently. "They don't have enough scaling ladders to swamp us, either. We've got more than enough to hold this part of the walls until the end of the world, and they don't have enough time for anything like a proper siege. Kny Camsan is out there behind them, and it won't take him long to realize why the iron heads wanted to lure us out of the city. When he does, he'll come right over them, and that will be the end of K'Vaern's Cove! All we have to do is keep them right where they are until he gets here. So get your warriors moving—we need them here on the walls!"


Messengers dashed off to summon the warriors of the clan to battle, and Trag leaned on the battlements, watching the shit-sitters. His confidence was genuine, but he was honest enough to admit that he didn't have a clue what the shit-sitters were up to as scores of them began pushing some sort of wagons up behind the blocks of infantry.


No doubt it was some new fancy trick the K'Vaernians had devised, but no trick was going to get them magically through the massive stone walls of Sindi.


* * *


"Move, move, move!"


Rus From and General Bogess were an eye of calm in a hurricane of effort as the specially trained companies manhandled the wagons into position. Those positions had been very carefully selected and surveyed by the Marine LURPs who'd kept Sindi under constant surveillance while the K'Vaernian army was equipped and trained. As well as both Diasprans had come to know their remarkable human allies, they'd been astonished by the routine, matter-of-fact way in which the Marines had roamed Sindi's environs under cover of night. Everyone knew the Boman barbarians could hear the whine of an insect's wings at seventy paces, yet the humans had penetrated effortlessly to the city's very walls, and their unobtrusively placed stakes had guided each wagon to its preselected position under the Diasprans' watchful eyes.


"Do we really think this is going to work?" Bogess asked the cleric under his breath, and From chuckled.


"Oh, I'm certain it will work," he said. "Once, at least, that is, given our gunpowder situation. Whether or not the Boman will cooperate by being where we want them to when it does work isn't my province, however, thank the God!"


"You're always so reassuring," Bogess muttered.


"Of course I am, that's my job!" From said cheerfully, then frowned thoughtfully. "It looks like we're just about ready," he observed. "Time for our last inspection."


"Let's get started then," Bogess replied, and the two of them separated and headed in opposite directions along the arc of wagons arranged before the northern walls of fallen Sindi.


* * *


"The bastards are up to something," one of Mnb Trag's subchiefs muttered.


"Of course they are," Trag shot back. "What? You thought they'd marched all this way just to stand there and scratch their asses at us?"


"Of course I didn't," the subchief retorted. "But I don't hear you telling us what it is they are up to, either!"


"Because I don't know," Trag conceded. "On the other hand, what does it matter what they're up to as long as they're out there and we're in here?"


He stamped a foot on the massive, solid stone of the parapet, and the subchief joined him in grunting laughter.


* * *


"The carts are laid in, Armand," Bogess said as he and From trotted up to Pahner and Bistem Kar. "The LURPs' stakes were exactly where they were supposed to be, and we're ready whenever you give the word."


"Good," Pahner replied, but his tone was a bit absent. Kar stood beside him, studying the city's walls through Dell Mir's telescope, but the Marine had the magnification of his helmet visor cranked up to give him a far clearer view than any primitive telescope could hope to match.


"They're a bit more spread out than I could wish," Kar said after a moment.


"Well, we can't expect the other side to do everything we want it to," Pahner pointed out. "And it probably doesn't matter all that much in the long run—these aren't exactly precision weapons, so there's going to be enough spread in the impact zone to cover a good bit of target dispersal. I'm more concerned about how many may still be under hard cover in the bombard and arquebus galleys. We're going to get good coverage, but we don't have anywhere near as much overhead penetration as I wish we did."


"According to Jin's count, there can't be very many arquebusiers left in the city, Sir," Julian pointed out over his powered armor's radio. "And if they aren't blind, then they must've seen all our nice scaling ladders. Which means they have to have moved just about everybody they've got left up onto the battlements to repel boarders."


"Nice and logical, Sergeant," Pahner agreed with a sour grin. "Unfortunately, logic is still a really good way to be wrong with confidence."


"Yet I think he's right," Kar said, closing his telescope with a click.


"If he isn't, we'll find out soon enough." Pahner sighed, and turned to From. "All right, Rus. They were your babies in production, so I guess it's only fitting to let you be the one to send them on their way. Light 'em up."


* * *


"What are those stupid shit-sitters up to?" Mnb Trag groused. "I'm not as young as I used to be, damn it, and these old legs are getting tired!"


"Sure they are," the subchief laughed. "You're a Boman, 'old man,' so don't think you can fool us into thinking you need a rest! No sitting down until you've killed your quota!"


"If I must, I must," Trag agreed with a theatrical sigh, and tested the edge of his ax with a thumb. "Still, I wish the basik would go ahead and poke their heads up here where I can cleave them!"


"Oh, they'll be along, I'm sure," the subchief told him. "Either that, or they'll slink back downriver like the cowards they are."


Trag grunted agreement, but his attention was on those odd wagons the shit-sitters had pushed into position with such care. Now crews were stripping the canvas covers off of them, and the old chieftain rubbed at a horn in puzzlement as the pewter-gray, late-morning light gleamed dully on strange, stubby cylindrical shapes. He couldn't tell what they were made of, but there were scores of them in each wagon, arranged in some sort of wooden frames that held them upright. Each of them was perhaps a handspan in diameter, but at least as long as a warrior's forearm, and the work crews seemed to be fussing over them with a ridiculous attention to detail.


Whatever they were doing, it didn't seem to take them long—this time, at least—and the crews scampered back to their positions. In fact, Trag realized, the wagons were widely separated from the waiting shit-sitter army. The closest of them was at least a hundred paces from the nearest block of infantry, and he suddenly wondered why that was.


* * *


Rus From made himself wait until the last wagon crew had completed its work and confirmed that they were safely back behind the danger lines. Then he glanced at Pahner one more time, turned to the K'Vaernian artillerist standing beside him with a lit torch, and nodded.


"Light it," he said flatly, and the K'Vaernian touched his torch to the waiting quick match.


A small, bright, hissing demon flashed along the lengths of fuse, racing across the damp ground in a stink of sulfur, and throughout the ranks of the army, men covered their eyes or ears, depending on their individual inclinations. And then the hissing demon reached the first wagon.


Mardukan societies of all types and stripes boasted enormous and detailed bestiaries of demons and devils—not surprisingly, probably, given the nightmare creatures which truly did walk the planet's jungles. Yet not one of the collections of monsters the humans had yet encountered had included anything remotely like the Terran dragons of myth.


Until today.


The wagons seemed to explode, but that wasn't quite what had happened. Each wagon contained a wooden frame, and nested into each frame were two hundred and forty twenty-centimeter rockets. Two thirds of those rockets were fitted with time-fused fragmentation/shrapnel warheads—a bursting charge of black powder surrounded by a shaped matrix of musket balls which turned each missile into what was, effectively, a huge, self-propelled shotgun shell. The other third were pure blast weapons, with simple contact fuses designed courtesy of Nimashet Despreaux and warheads charged with two kilos of black powder each.


There were fifty wagons outside Sindi, for a total of twelve thousand rockets, and the blast warheads alone carried eight metric tons of gunpowder, exclusive of the propellant charges. The projectiles roared heavenward in an incredible, choking column of brimstone-flavored smoke and flame, then arced over and came screaming down. The fragmentation warheads burst in midair, and although the jury-rigged time fuses were crude, to say the very least, the vast majority functioned approximately as designed. A deluge of almost two million musket balls hammered the battlements and a zone fifty meters deep on either side of the walls, like the flail of some outraged war god that turned every exposed Boman into so much torn and shredded meat. No one on Marduk had ever so much as contemplated such a weapon, and so none of the barbarians had even considered taking cover. Instead, they'd crowded together, almost literally shoulder-to-shoulder, to await the anticipated assault, and they couldn't have offered a better target if they'd tried to. Here and there a small group or an isolated individual happened to have had sufficient overhead protection to avoid annihilation, but they represented only a minute proportion of Mnb Trag's tribe and its allies. When that dreadful broom of fire and fury swept across the walls of Sindi, almost ten thousand Boman warriors perished in a single screaming moment of devastation.


And on the heels of the fragmentation warheads, came the blast weapons. Compared to modern human weapons, the quaint, crude black powder rockets were mere children's toys, but the earth trembled underfoot like a terrified animal as those "toys" came crunching down on the walls and the buildings behind them. A terrifying drumroll of explosions threw fire and smoke, bits and pieces of barbarian warriors, roofing tiles, building stone, and shattered wood higher than the walls themselves, and the soldiers of K'Vaern's Cove looked at one another in shock and awe at the sheer havoc of the humans' weapons.


Mnb Trag never had the opportunity to share their shock and awe. Along with virtually every warrior of his tribe, he was wiped out of existence before he had time to grasp, even dimly, what horror lurked within the despised shit-sitters' wagons.


* * *


"Damn," Julian said almost mildly. "Think we used enough dynamite, there, Gronningen?"


"We can hope," the big Asgardian replied stolidly, watching the incredible pall of smoke and dust rising like some loathsome beast above the broken stoneyard which had once been the northernmost portion of the city of Sindi.


"Guess we find out now," Julian said as his HUD flashed. "Time to saddle up, troops."


* * *


Mnb Trag was dead, but by some fluke of ballistics and fate, the subchief who'd stood barely ten paces from the old chieftain still breathed. That wouldn't be true very much longer, and the subchief knew it, for he felt his strength fleeing with the blood pulsing from his savagely mangled legs. But the anesthesia of shock kept him from truly feeling the pain, and he pushed himself up onto his elbows with his fading strength and stared about him in total disbelief.


The wall itself still stood, virtually intact and gruesomely decorated with the torn and dismembered bodies of his fellow clansmen, but the neat houses and streets behind the walls had been threshed and shattered under a club of fire. Flames roared from the broken structures, bellowing and capering like demons above a broken wasteland of rubble, and the dying subchief felt an icy stab of terror as he surveyed the wreckage. Not for himself, for a man who knew he was dying had very little else to fear, but for the host following Kny Camsan in his pursuit of the League cavalry. If this dreadful devil weapon could unleash such devastation upon solid stone and masonry, what would happen if it caught the host in the open, completely without protection?


That thought shuddered in the back of his fading brain, and he turned away from the vista of ruin. He found himself facing the massively bastioned main gate of the city, instead . . . just in time to see magic.


Before the Mardukan's dying eyes, four demons appeared out of nowhere in a ripple of distortion, like the wavering of heat above a flame. They were mottled gray and yellow, with only two arms and bulbous heads and bodies, and their skins looked like wood or metal. As the subchief watched in amazement, one of them made a sword appear from nothing and struck it deep into the gate. Into the gap between the leaves of the gate, actually, and metal screamed as the demon sliced downward. Massive locking bars of bronze and iron parted like thread, and then the demon made his sword disappear, reached out to grip one huge bronze-sheathed panel in each hand, and pulled them apart.


The subchief watched in horror as a second supernatural apparition began to assist the first. Those gates were incredibly heavy, and slightly warped from the Boman's own assault on the city and the iron heads' bags of gunpowder. Dozens of stout warriors were required to open or close either one of their panels . . . slowly. But those two powerful demons, all by themselves, were—


And then, he died.


* * *


There were still a few Boman survivors, and some of them were actually on their feet as Julian threw the full weight of his armor against the gate and it came fully open. The huge hinges were twisted top and bottom, but the soft iron couldn't resist the powered "muscles" of the suits. Only the fact that, massive as they were, the suits were much lighter than the gate panels had prevented the armored Marines from flinging them open instantly, but instantly wasn't really required.


The first barbarians were already charging forward to regain the gateway, and Julian wondered whether it was courage or stupidity—or if there was a difference between them—that kept the barbarians on their feet. Or perhaps it was only the battle fury for which the Boman were famed. Not that it made any practical difference what kept the survivors coming.


The army behind him was also charging for the gates, and his HUD showed a tide of blue icons racing to support him. But the K'Vaernians had kept well clear of the impact zone, which meant they had considerably farther to go, and it was clear that the surviving barbs were going to get there first.


Not that it was going to do them a bit of good.


Julian didn't even bother to unlimber his bead cannon. He and Moseyev were still busy opening the gates, anyway, but that was all right. The only way the scummies could reach the gate was down the long, narrow gate tunnel, and anything his stutter gun could have added to the carnage of Gronningen's plasma cannon in such confined quarters would have been superfluous.


The phlegmatic Asgardian squeezed off a single shot that filled the tunnel's bore from wall to wall with a sliver of a star's heart. Half the tunnel roof disappeared as the upward angled plasma bolt slammed into it and sliced a huge wedge out of the back face of the city wall. For a few moments, the rest of the tunnel roof looked as if it might hold, but then it, too, collapsed downward, taking half of one of the gate bastions with it. The avalanche of plunging masonry looked as if it might be going to bury the Marines, but it fell clear . . . and Gronningen's second shot blew straight down the gaping, roofless cut through the curtain wall which had once been a tunnel.


The bolt of nuclear fire hit the new-made rubble before it even had a chance to settle properly, and the broken walls and falling stones simply lifted back into the air. Some of their mass was converted to slightly cooler plasma, but most of it simply added its weight to the shrapnel flying from the explosion, as if the city itself was rising up against its invaders.


The same actinic fire, mixed with bits of half-molten stone, washed over the surviving Boman . . . who promptly stopped surviving.


"Krin," Bistem Kar half-whispered as the first battalion of K'Vaernian infantry slid to a skidding halt behind the armored figures it had intended to relieve. No unarmored individual was going to be able to survive in the blast-furnace fury of that shattered gate tunnel for some hours to come, and the Cove's senior guardsman shook his head in slow disbelief. The humans had never demonstrated any of their energy weapons for the K'Vaernians, who'd had only the reports from Diaspra to go on, and despite himself, Kar had never really quite believed those reports. Oh, he hadn't doubted them intellectually, but what Bogess and Rus From and other veterans of the New Model Army had described to him had been so far beyond the limits of his experience that he'd simply been unable to grasp the reality.


Now, he'd seen it . . . and he still wasn't certain he believed it. The power of the plasma cannon was even more shocking, in an odd sort of way, because it came on the heels of the rocket bombardment. The dreadful, overwhelming hiss and roar and crackle and thunder of the rockets had been the most cataclysmic thing he'd ever experienced. In the instant that those howling missiles slammed home, he'd felt, however fleetingly, as if the very lightnings of the gods had been placed in his true-hands. Yet that single shot from Gronningen's weapon had sliced effortlessly through the massive stonework even the concussive thunder of the rockets had left virtually untouched, and the tough, confident guardsman felt something tremble inside him as he realized that every single word the Diasprans had told him was true.


He turned to Pahner and shook his head.


"Why don't you use them to clear the whole city?" he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the armored Marines, still standing unconcernedly in the inferno of the gutted gate tunnel. "We're going to take casualties in those warrens, prying the Boman holdouts out one by one."


"Power," Pahner said. "Not enough of it, that is."


"Ah," the K'Vaernian commander said with a gesture of puzzlement. "I'm just a simple old soldier, of course, but—"


"Ha!" the Marine laughed. "Some 'simple old soldier'!"


"I stand by that description," Kar said with a dignity which was only slightly flawed by the twinkle in his eye. "But, simple old soldier or not, that—" he waved at the gaping wound which had once been a gate tunnel "—seems ample power to deal with anything these barbarians might bring to bear."


"Not that kind of power," Pahner said. "Or, not directly, that is." The K'Vaernian regarded him with obvious confusion, and the Marine shrugged. "You know how some of the hammer mills in K'Vaern's Cove use wind power, and others use water power from your storage cisterns?"


"Yes," Kar said, his expressions suddenly thoughtful. "Are you saying those things—" he nodded at the quartet of armored Marines once more "—don't have enough rainwater stored in their cisterns?"


"In a way," Pahner agreed, trying to figure out how to explain "potential energy." "The suits run on very powerful energy storage devices. We don't have many of them, and we need those we have for later use. And the weapons themselves only have so many charges, so we can't afford to use them unless we really need them. And we are going to need both them and all the power we've got left soon enough; there's a real battle waiting for us down the road."


"I can see that you wouldn't consider this a battle," Bogess said, glancing at the carnage of the gate. "But that's because we pulled the main force away from the city, and because the Boman were considerate enough to assemble right in the middle of our kill zone, exactly as we'd hoped. Unfortunately, we've used up the rockets now, so we won't be able to blast them this way again. Although," he added thoughtfully, "I still don't know how useful the rocket wagons would be in a real mobile battle. We knew where the city was, so we could plan exact trajectories. And better yet," he chuckled grimly, "Sindi couldn't exactly dodge."


"That's true enough," Kar acknowledged, "and it's also the reason I agreed that we should use them all now—there's not any point in holding back weapons which might not work later if their use now helps to assure a victory we have to have."


"Agreed," Bogess nodded. "But it still looks like there were at least ten thousand warriors still in the city, and that's only a small fraction of what's out tramping around chasing Rastar and Honal. Sooner or later, we're going to have to face up to the rest of the horde, after all, and I suppose that would qualify as a battle in almost anyone's eyes."


"I wasn't talking about the rest of the Boman," Pahner said, pulling out a slice of bisti root. "We haven't been totally up-front with you guys. Oh, we haven't lied to you, or anything like that, but we've . . . neglected to mention a couple of things. Like the fact that the port we keep saying that we have to reach on the other side of the ocean happens to be held by our enemies."


"Your enemies?" Bistem Kar said carefully. "With similar weapons, I assume?"


"Yes."


"God of Water preserve us," Bogess said faintly.


"Anyway, there won't be many holdouts to find in there," the Marine observed. "As you said, Bogess, most of them were right where we wanted them, waiting for us on the walls. Most of the ones we missed there got themselves killed in the gate tunnel, and the ones who didn't are probably still running . . . and will be, for a while. So keep the troops in hand and fight them through the city, but you shouldn't have that much trouble punching through. Just remember we have to get in before everybody else refugees out. And while you two get that moving, it's time for Rus to bring up the labor teams so we can get down to the real work."


"Well," Bogess said, "now I understand why you Marines don't look upon a battle with the Boman with dread. This isn't much of a battle to you, is it?"


"In a way," Pahner said, "but it's not just a matter of scale, you know. That—" he gestured with his chin at the huge pall of smoke and flame still billowing above the rocket strike "—is just as destructive, in its way, as any plasma cannon. It's not as . . . efficient, I guess, but those poor Boman bastards are just as much dead, mangled meat as if we killed them with bead rifles or smart bombs. Blood is blood, when you come right down to it, and it's not the thought of the battles that lie in our future that makes this any less dreadful. Not really. It's just that once you've walked through Hell a few times, it takes a lot for anything to get past your shell.


"Even something like this."


 


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