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CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Armand Pahner stood on the walls of Sindi and gazed out over the muddy, trampled fields. Work crews, wagon trains, and infantry pickets marching out to relieve other pickets stretched as far as the eye could see with a helmet visor set to max, but even as he gazed at them, the activities outside the walls weren't what occupied his mind.


He was thinking about women and children.


The Boman host traveled with all the (limited) comforts of home, including its women and young . . . and Kny Camsan's ambitions had concentrated over half the total host's dependents right here in the city. In fact, it was that bit of intelligence, discovered by Gunny Jin's LURPs and confirmed by reports from a handful of the primitive woodsmen who continued to linger in the forests, despite the Boman's presence, which had shaped the captain's entire strategy.


Pahner had given the strictest orders that every one of those dependents was to be taken into custody, and that none of them were to be molested in any way. The biannual "heat" of the Mardukans eliminated, for all practical purposes, the issue of rape from the local art of war, which—given humans' history—he thought was a very good thing. But that didn't necessarily make war nice and sanitary, and the Boman's depredations and the sheer, horrifying scale of the massacres they had perpetrated had left the locals perfectly willing to slaughter their women and children in return and be done with it. K'Vaernians didn't have the expression "nits make lice," but there was general agreement that the only good Boman was a dead Boman, and the age or sex didn't matter.


Those qualities did, however, matter to Pahner. Leaving aside the clear proscription in imperial regulations against atrocities, leaving aside even his own personal repugnance for unnecessary slaughter, he needed those dependents. He needed them alive, and in good condition.


They were bait.


Normally, the Boman didn't besiege a city the same way a "civilized" army might have. If they failed—or chose not to—overrun its walls with their first, concerted rush, they fell back on their own sort of investment. They didn't call up the engineers to dig trench lines, and they made no effort to batter down walls or tunnel under them. Nor did they encamp outside a city's walls to hold it under a close envelopment. Instead, they just . . . existed, like some vast, slowly swarming sea which had inundated all of the lands about their enemies yet offered no fixed camps which might be assaulted to force them into battle. Their presence, and overwhelming numbers, prevented any organized movement on the part of the besieged city. Anyone trying to break out or escape was caught and overrun. Laborers trying to work the fields were massacred, draft animals were slaughtered or run off. If large forces sortied against them, they avoided their foes until enough barbarians gathered to pull them down and destroy them. If a city was weak enough, they were willing to simply pile up to the wall and assault it, but in general, they took their time and let it fester and rot . . . then assaulted it.


Part of the reason for that was logistical. The Boman were herdsmen, of a sort, which helped sustain their population levels, but they also depended on large areas for hunting and gathering, like other Mardukan barbarians. Even without the need for hunting, their flocks of meat animals—the closest to "farming" they came—required vast grazing areas. At home, they moved their flocks constantly, allowing the grazing in any one area to recover between visits, and they were generally forced to do exactly the same thing when they went to war, assuming they intended to actually feed their warriors. There was no way they could organize a supply train, so staying put for any extended period wasn't really practical, except for the times—like Sindi—when they were able to capture supplies someone else had stockpiled.


True, they had chosen to begin this war with a series of frenzied, massive assaults which had suffered huge casualties, but that had been because this time they were working to a comprehensive strategy which had been designed to annihilate all of the southern city-states, not simply to take a single town. They had recognized their need to smash the Northern League quickly, before it could recover from Sindi's treachery and its cities could come to one another's aid as they always had in the past.


The sheer surprise of their coordinated tactics had done almost as much to defeat the League as anything agents from Sindi might have accomplished, Pahner suspected, although he had no intention of suggesting anything of the sort to Rastar or their other Northern allies. After generations of fighting Boman in the same old way, no one in the League had anticipated such an overwhelming onslaught . . . and neither had the Southern city-states behind it. The terror effect of the League's sudden collapse, coupled with the sheer size of the Boman host and the fact that most of the Southerners, secure in the League's protection, had settled for modest defensive works of their own, had made it relatively simple to storm each successive city in turn, and Camsan had done just that. Sindi had been a tougher nut, but the war leader had made no real effort to restrain his warriors' enthusiasm in Sindi's case. He couldn't have, given the reason the war had been decreed in the first place, but casualties in the storm of Sindi had actually been worse than they had in the attack on Therdan. The Northerners had been far tougher opponents, but Sindi had been much larger, and its authorities had been given sufficient time to prepare before the hurricane howled down upon it.


But after Sindi, the Boman had reverted to their more normal tactics rather than attempt an extremely unwise storm of K'Vaern's Cove. The only real difference was that their capture of Sindi gave them a powerful, heavily defended forward base, and—coupled with their conquest of the other Southern city-states—enough captured food to stay in place for several months. Eventually, of course, they would eat their captured larders bare and have to begin thinking about more aggressive ways to take the war to the Cove, but until the humans and their Diaspran allies arrived, Camsan's strategy of letting the K'Vaernians rot and deplete their already limited food supplies feeding the floods of refugees had been working quite nicely. It had been almost certain that, assuming he could hold the Boman together as a cohesive force, he could have sat where he was long enough to reduce the Cove to starving near impotence and then poured his warriors over the walls the Guard would be too weakened to defend.


Which was the whole reason Pahner was out here now. Whether or not the Cove would be fatally weakened before starvation forced the Boman to move themselves, he couldn't wait to see the outcome. He needed to bring the barbarians to decisive battle now, so that he and his Marines could get the heck out of Dodge before their food supplements ran out, and to do that he needed to do two other things. First, he needed to present them with a threat which appeared less formidable than it actually was, and, second, he needed to give them a reason to attack that threat.


A reason like rescuing all of their women and children.


The captain didn't much like his own strategy, but it was the only one he could think of which had a chance of working within the time constraints he faced. And if there were things about it that he didn't like, he wasn't the one who had decided to level every city-state north of the Diaspra Plateau and the Nashtor Hills.


He snorted, once more amused by his own perversity. Here he was, protecting thousands of women and children from massacre at the hands of his own allies, and all he could think about was how despicable of him it was to use them as bait to lure their menfolk into battle. On the other hand, he suspected he was also dwelling upon that thought to avoid considering one that worried him even more, and it was probably time he stopped doing that. He shook his head, then checked the time and decided that he couldn't put it off any longer.


He drew a deep breath, sent a command to his toot to bring up his communicator, and spoke.


"Roger?"


"Here," the response came back, almost instantly, and the Marine felt his shoulders relax ever so slightly.


"You sound better," he said. "Are you?"


"It comes and goes," the prince said over the radio. "I'm tracking again, if that's what you mean. Whose idea was it to send Nimashet?"


"I felt that you were a bit too exposed," the captain said. "So I augmented Corporal Beckley's team with the rest of the squad. They'll stay with you for the remainder of the operation."


"I see." There was silence over the com for several seconds while both of them digested a great many things which hadn't been said and probably never would be. "So, how're we doing?"


"Pretty much on schedule," Pahner replied. "Eva is working with Rus on the preparation of the defenses. That only seemed to make sense, given her involvement with the artillerists. And Bistem and Bogess have their infantry fairly well organized on the approaches to the city, given that we've had to tap each regiment for a labor battalion to help out Rus's engineers."


"And Rastar?" Roger asked.


"So far, so good," Pahner told him. "He's having a bit more trouble than we'd hoped he would opening the distance between himself and their main force, and it's pretty obvious that they're trying to catch him between the pursuit from Sindi and forces from the other occupied city-states. So far, they haven't been able to hit him with anything he couldn't handle, and his ammunition supply seems to be in pretty good shape, but his whole diversion looks like turning into one big running battle."


"Are we going to have to go in after him?"


"I don't know. I hope not, and so far it looks like we can probably avoid it. But I'm keeping an eye on the situation."


"Good. And what do you want us to be doing?"


"Pretty much what you are, Your Highness. From what Beckley and Despreaux told me yesterday evening, you've got your cavalry about where I want it on that southern flank. I'm going to peel the Carnan Battalion back off from Ther's close cover force on the convoys and send it back to you. We'll let the other cavalry cover him; I want those rifles back out there with you."


"Just to keep my precious hide intact?" Roger asked a bit tartly, and Pahner snorted.


"I'm sure that's somewhere in the back of my mind," he said, "but it's not foremost. Mainly, I just want to be sure that the anchor at the far end of my line isn't going to come loose if somebody runs into it."


"I see. Well, in that case, Captain, we're just going to have to see to it that we stay put, aren't we?"


* * *


Dna Kol swallowed a bite of parched barleyrice and leaned down to suck water from the stream.


"If we don't find these damned shit-sitters soon, we head back to the city. I'm out of food and patience," he growled.


"What are they doing?" one of the warriors asked. "First they head west, like they're going back to wherever they crossed. Now they head east."


"They're scattering to avoid us," Dna Kol said. "And somewhere, they're gathering again."


"How can they find each other out here in the woods?" the warrior asked. "I don't know where I am. Oh, I could find the city easily enough if I headed in the right direction long enough, but I certainly couldn't tell anyone else how to find me. So how do they know where they are? Or where to go to find the rest of them?"


"Maps," another of the warriors spat, drawing his head up out of the stream. "Damned shit-sitter maps. They map everything. They'll know where every stream crossing is before they get to it."


"Which is how they're managing to lead us around by the nose," Kol agreed. "But we'll track them down soon enough . . . and bring the whole host down on them when we do."


"I could do with some new armor," the first warrior said. He pulled a throwing ax from its belt loop and made a chopping motion. "And I know just how to get some."


"Let's move," Kol said. "I can smell them. They're near."


* * *


Rastar ran another patch through the barrel of one of his revolvers, examined the weapon carefully, and decided he was satisfied. In some ways, the last prince of Therdan missed Captain Pahner's pistol. It held far more rounds than the seven-shot revolvers, its recoil was less, and it was a lot easier to clean. But for all that, he still preferred these new weapons. There was something about the spit of flame and the trailing smoke from gunfire that added a deeper dimension to the battle. And Pahner's pistol had been too much like magic. These pistols were clearly the work of mortal hands, yet they spoke with all the sound and fury of a gunpowder thunderstorm.


"Time to change civan again," he announced as Honal rode up to him and reined in.


"I'm not sure I can dismount," his cousin groaned. "I used to think I was tough."


"I believe you mentioned that yesterday morning," the Northern leader said. He finished loading cartridges into the cylinder, carefully plugged the mouth of each chamber with the heavily greased felt pad which prevented flash-over from detonating all seven rounds at once, and began fitting the copper caps over the nipples at the rear of the cylinder. "Change your mind?"


"I think I've figured out a translation for that joke that bastard Pahner told us before we set out," Honal said in indirect reply as he slid gracelessly out of the saddle and fell onto his back. The civan delicately stepped away as a groom came up to unsaddle it.


"Oh?" The prince finished capping the cylinder and swung it back into place and looked up inquiringly. The humans' toot translations were usually excellent, but they made a hash of jokes . . . which had been obvious in the case of Pahner's statement.


"You just have to make a terrible pun out of it, and it's really quite funny," the Sheffan cavalry commander said, still laid out flat on the ground. "If, of course, you haven't spent three days at a fairly constant trot. Try it this way: 'A Manual for Cavalry Operations, Forty Kolong a Day, by Princely Arseburns.'"


"Ah!" The Therdan prince gave a grunting laugh. "Har! That's pretty good, actually. Feel better?"


"No," his cousin said. "I have princely arseburns. I have armor chafe. I have dry-slime. And I think my legs just fell off."


"Nope," Rastar said with another grunt. "They're still there. Hey, think of how the civan must feel."


"Pock the civan," the cavalry commander said with feeling. "When we get back to K'Vaern's Cove, I swear I'm going infantry. If I never see another civan again in my life, it will be too soon. I'm going to personally eat every one of them I've ridden in the last three days. It'll take a couple of seasons, and I think I've already killed two the cooks didn't get gathered up, but I'll get all of the others. I can do it. I have the determination."


"We have lost quite a few," Rastar said softly. "A lot more than I'd like, in fact. But as long as they hold up for the last run, we're golden."


"Not necessarily," Honal said, finally sitting up with another groan. "One of my scouts caught a group on our back trail."


"Now you tell me?"


"They're a few hours back," Honal told him unrepentantly. "But we do need to ready a reception."


* * *


Dna Kol paused at the edge of the clearing. The spot was a regular stopping place on the Sindi-Sheffan caravan trail, an open area created by a thousand years of caravans' cutting undergrowth for firewood, and a medium-sized, fordable stream ran through it. A heavy rain was falling, reducing visibility, but it was still clear that more iron head cavalry than he ever wanted to see again waited on the far side of the clearing.


"Crap," he snorted. "I think we've been suckered."


"There's more of them moving off to the right," one of his followers said. "Let's hammer this group before the others get into position."


"I think we're the ones who're going to be hammered," the subchief said. "But that does seem to be the only option."


* * *


Rastar grinned in the human fashion as the Boman burst from the tree line, screaming their tribal war cry. His only worry had been that they might move back into the trees, taking cover from the cavalry's fire, but perhaps the pounding rain explained why they hadn't. Surely, by now, the Boman must have realized that the League troopers' new firearms were remarkably unaffected by precipitation! Still, he supposed the ingrained habits of decades of experience against matchlocks couldn't be overcome in a mere three days.


"Load up, but hold your fire!" he shouted as he spurred his civan into the clearing. "I want to try something."


He drew up, turned his civan to present its flank to the barbarian line, and pulled out four of his eight pistols as the Boman charged to get into throwing ax range. His true-hands pointed right and left, to the outside of the charging barbarian line, while the false-hands pointed at its center. He let all four eyes defocus, drew a deep breath, and opened fire.


The astonished barbarians' charge shattered as all four pistols blazed simultaneously and the accurate, massed fire piled up a line of bodies for the following warriors to stumble over.


The prince's grin was a snarl through the thick fog of rain-slashed gunsmoke as he spun his civan and galloped back through the positions of his waiting cavalry.


"Okay," he called, smoking pistols held high, "now you can try!"


He holstered two weapons and started reloading the other two as the cavalry about him began to fire.


"Wyatt who?" he grunted.


* * *


"Are you going to get all the supplies out?" Roger asked over his helmet com.


"I sure hope so," Pahner replied with a snort. "Although, we're retaining a good bit more than I'd originally planned. Got to feed these women and children something."


"I'm surprised the troops are staying in hand so well," Roger said, studying the video feed from the captain's helmet and taking in the orderliness of the city's occupiers.


"Me, too," Pahner admitted. "I'd assumed at least a twenty-five percent loss rate from AWOLs in the city, but we're at nearly one hundred percent present as of the morning report."


"That high?" Roger sounded surprised, and Pahner chuckled.


"Bistem Kar gave them an incentive," the Marine explained. "Before he released the troops to glean, he paraded them in front of the huge piles of stuff from the main storerooms and promised each of them a share on return. Some of them never even left—why go hunting through the city, when you can be handed a bag of gold and silver for staying put?—and the rest came back soon enough."


"That Kar is one smart cookie," Roger observed with a chuckle.


"That he is," the captain agreed. "And there's an important lesson here, Roger. Smart allies are worth their weight in gold."


"So what's the game plan at your end?" the prince asked.


"Rus's people are recovering from their engineering efforts. As soon as they have, I'm sending half of them back to Tor Flain to man the D'Sley defenses for him and help Fullea cross load the Sindi loot from the river barges and caravans to the seagoing vessels for transit to the Cove. The other half will move over and begin helping to load the barges from this end."


"And Bistem and Bogess?"


"I'm putting half of their people on the stores, and the other half on security. We're going to have Boman filtering back from the north soon, and I want a good security screen dug in to deal with them until we're ready."


"And after that, we wait," Roger said.


"And after that, we wait," Pahner confirmed.


* * *


Kny Camsan's head went up as he heard the firing to the north.


"Another skirmish, while all the time this group gets smaller and smaller and further and further away," he growled.


"What else can we do?" one of the subchiefs asked. "We have to run them to ground."


"Of course we do," the war leader said, "and we can. I have yet to find a group of civan that can outlast the Boman over the long run. But they're scattered all over the landscape, and we've been letting them dictate where we go by chasing directly after them. No more! Tell the warriors to spread out and head back towards the southeast. Instead of chasing them, we'll sweep on a broad front while the other clans join up with us. When our full strength is assembled, we'll be a wall, moving through the jungle, and whenever we encounter one of these accursed groups of theirs, we'll hammer them into the earth!"


"That sounds better than chasing along their back trail day after day," the subchief agreed. "But we're running low on food."


"We are the Boman," Camsan said dismissively. "The host can go for days without, and when we've run them down, we'll fill our bellies on the meat from their civan and go back to Sindi in triumph."


"Some of the host have tired of the chase. They're already going back to Sindi."


"Fine by me," Camsan grunted. "I didn't want to chase these shit-sitters in the first place, but be damned if I'll head back now until I have that Therdan pussy's head on a spear!"


 


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