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CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

"Where in the hell did all this shit-sitter cavalry come from?" Sof Knu demanded, glaring at the ten- or fifteen-man cavalry picket from the undergrowth while rain drizzled down from an ebon sky.


"It must have been the 'marsh gas' we were chasing," Knitz De'n replied.


The last five days had been a period of utter frustration. De'n's tribe had arrived on the K'Vaern's Cove road to find absolutely no sign of any iron head cavalry, although there had been some tracks, washing away in the rain. They'd found a few of the damned wood runners and tortured them for information, but most had denied knowing anything, no matter how much they screamed. Finally, one had admitted to seeing some cavalry, but the place he claimed to have seen them was so close to Sindi that De'n had ordered his torturers to give him special attention to punish his lies. But the worthless creature had continued to shriek the same lie over and over again until he died, so the subchief had decided he had no choice but to check it out . . . only to find these damned patrols between him and the city. The only good thing was that the shit-sitters hadn't spotted him in return. Yet.


"We can sweep them aside easily," Knu said. "Just give the word."


"The word is given," the subchief growled, pulling out a throwing ax. "As soon as the tribe is assembled, we'll run right over them. And anything else that stands in our way."


* * *


"What was that?" Roger looked up from his map and cocked his head.


"What was what?" Despreaux asked. "I can't hear a thing but the rain."


"Shots," the prince replied. "To the southwest." He stood up, trying to triangulate the source by turning his head from side to side, but the brief crackle of gunfire had already died.


"Somebody shooting a damnbeast?" Chim Pri suggested uncertainly.


"Maybe one of the cavalry pickets," Roger said. He looked out at the rain-soaked, night-dark woods and shivered despite the unending Mardukan warmth. "Chim, saddle up. I want you to head southwest and see what you find. Push skirmishers out front, but find the picket that was shooting if you can, and find out what it was shooting at."


"No more shots," Turkol Bes pointed out.


"I know," Roger said wiping the rain out of his face. "And I don't care. I still want to know what they were shooting at."


"I'm going," Pri said, looking into the water-filled, Stygian blackness. "But if it's trouble, you'd better be ready to follow us up sharpish."


"We will," Roger assured him, keying his helmet com. "Sergeant Jin?"


* * *


"We heard it, too, Sir," the gunnery sergeant said. The majority of the LURP teams had been left out to supplement the cavalry screen. "It was almost due west of us. All we could hear were the shots, but it sounded like one of the screen patrols ran into something heavy."


"Atul?" the prince asked, and over the radio, Jin could hear Mardukans bellowing what sounded like orders in the background. Clearly, the prince was on the ball.


"I don't think so, Sir," the NCO said. "I was just about to call it in to Captain Pahner when you called me."


"Right," Roger said, and Jin could almost hear the wheels turning. "I'm pushing my cavalry down there to see what they find. I'll go ahead and orient the Carnan that way, as well. Call the Captain and give him a situation report. MacClintock out."


The NCO smiled in the darkness. Whatever was going on in the deep woods seemed to have galvanized the prince, thank God. He truly sounded like himself for the first time since Matsugae's death . . . and that was the first time the gunnery sergeant had ever heard Roger refer to himself unthinkingly as a MacClintock.


* * *


Patty burbled unhappily as the mahouts threw on her harness.


"I know, girl," Roger said, soothingly. He patted her behind her armored ruff. "I know it's dark. Deal with it."


It was dark—very dark. The double cloud layer had set in with a vengeance, and the moons weren't even up above it. Once they got away from the fires, most of the force would be nearly blind. The cavalry would be depending on their civan to find the way, and many of them would get lost. But the civan would eventually find their way back, at least. The same could not be said for the infantry.


He looked up to see Bes coming towards him in a way which demonstrated the point. The infantry leader had been reading a map in the tent, and now, in the shadows of the turom assigned to the mobile unit, he was walking with all four arms thrown forward, questing for anything which might loom unseen in his way.


"Over here, Turkol," Roger said. His own helmet systems, of course, made the area almost daylight-bright . . . which gave him an idea.


"God of Water, Your Highness," the infantry commander said. "How are we going to find our way through this?"


"I was just thinking about that," Roger told him. "I think I'll have to break up my Marine squad and let each of them lead a section of the column. We'll move in line until we find out what's happening, and each of the troops will have to hold hands with the men in front of and behind him."


"Okay," Bes agreed, his eyes starting to adjust at least a little. "The good news is that the Boman don't like to move in the dark, either. And they do it slowly. I'll go get the troops lined up."


"And I'll get the Marines," Roger said.


* * *


"No!" Despreaux snapped. "We're your bodyguard, not seeing-eye Marines!"


"Sergeant Despreaux, that's an order," the prince said coldly, "and if I bring it to Captain Pahner's attention, which I should not have to do, he'll back me on it. We may very well have a hostile force of unknown size on our flank, and no forces on this side but us. I don't have time to debate with you."


"Who covers your back, Sir?" the squad leader demanded.


"Two Marines," Roger answered, "one of whom will not be you. And you won't be leading a group, either, nor will I. That leaves eight. Go get them ready, and have them report to Turkol. We need to have left already."


Despreaux threw up her hands.


"All right, all right. I get the picture. Yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full. Just do me one favor, Your Highness."


"What?"


"Don't go riding into the middle of a thousand Boman screaming a war chant, okay?"


Roger snorted. "Okay. And do me one favor back."


"What?"


"Don't get yourself killed. I've got plans for you."


"Okay," the sergeant said. "I'll be going now."


* * *


Chim Pri reined in at a small stream and strained to hear. The jungle was always alive with sound, yet this time there was something extra. The rain had stopped, temporarily at least, but a wind was blowing through the treetops. It probably presaged yet another rainstorm, which would be irritating enough, but it was also blowing noisy spatters of water off of leaves and vines. It made hearing difficult, yet there was something else, another rustling half-lost in the background sound, but there.


He turned around and realized he could barely see two mounts behind him.


"First three troopers. Move forward and see what that is. And try not to get yourselves killed."


A trio of civan trotted obediently forward, and he heard one of the all-but-invisible troopers grunting in laughter.


"Yes, Sir. We'll try real hard not to get killed."


"You'd better," the cavalry commander said with a grunt of his own. "Anybody who gets killed tonight is going on report!"


It took only a few moments for the civan to thread their way between the trees. But their approach, quiet as it was, was detected, and the night rang with barbarian warcries from hundreds of lungs.


"Gods of Fire and Darkness!" Pri snapped. "What in the three hells did we run into?"


One of the troopers he'd sent forward let loose with all seven shots in one of the newly issued revolvers, and the brilliant lightning bolts of the muzzle flashes showed the cavalry commander dozens of barbarians . . . and probably hundreds more behind them.


"Spread out!" he shouted. "I need some sort of accurate count!"


The commander spurred his civan to the south, searching for the tail of the barbarian column as the Boman charged straight into the swirling cavalry of the Basik's Own. Finally, as the shots rose to a crescendo, he decided he'd seen enough.


"Sound the recall!" he ordered the hornmen, who'd somehow kept up through the woods. "Sound a general retreat. Hopefully, they'll fall back to the infantry."


He picked the communicator off his breast as he turned to the northeast, wondering how to tell Roger that the entire force was apparently cut off. Behind him, the horns began to sound.


The enemy was upon them.


* * *


"Well, gentlemen, this is what happens when you draw to an inside straight," Pahner said.


"It might not be that bad," Bogess said. "If it's a small force, we can beat it off."


"According to Chim Pri, it's at least a thousand or two thousand," the Marine said, "and our last sizable cavalry force—his—is scattered through the woods and all mixed up amongst them. So it's not going to be easy to stop them."


"Should we stop the loading?" Rus From asked.


"Not unless we have to," Pahner said. "Pull one regiment off of loading duties just in case, but basically, it's up to Roger now. If he beats them, we'll continue as we're going. If he's forced out of position or flanked, we'll start pulling troops off of loading to form a front facing towards D'Sley." The Marine paused and shook his head. "Did I just say what I think I said?"


"You said we should pull a battalion off of loading and that it's up to Roger," Bogess said. "Is that what you mean?"


"Yes," the captain said with a grimace. "I'm supposed to be protecting Roger, not the other way around. This is not going to look good in my report."


"You have to write the report for it to look good or bad," Rus From said with a grunt of laughter. "Let Roger look out for himself."


"Lord, Lord, Lord," the Marine groaned. "His mother's going to kill me."


* * *


Roger dropped his pad into its pouch and shook his head. He already knew the terrain, and there was nowhere to anchor his flank. There was a stream not too far behind them, though, that would work to control the line.


"Turkol, we're backing up to the far side of the stream. Put one company in reserve, spread the other three in a line, and start working out a light defense work. Have them dig in good; we're not backing up any further."


"Got it," the infantry battalion commander said. "What about the flanks?"


"If we can get the cavalry back in, we'll have it cover them. Until then, I'll split the Marines and put them in place as security teams." He thought about it for a moment more, but there wasn't much else to do. "Move."


* * *


"Roger," Pri said into the communicator, "where the hell are you? And where the hell am I, for that matter?"


"Do you remember crossing a small stream on your way out?" the prince responded, gazing at the icon the location transponder in Pri's communicator had thrown up on the map on his pad.


"Yes, I'm on the same trail we followed on the way out, I think." The cavalry commander looked around. He heard occasional pistol shots behind him, but he had at least half his command regrouped.


"We're setting up on the stream. Are you in contact with the Boman?"


"No," Pri said. "Not as an organized body, at least. Some of my people are still out there, and I can hear them shooting, but it's blacker than the inside of an atul's nest, and I can't see crap. We broke contact as soon as we realized we were outnumbered, though, and I'm pretty sure my stragglers all know which way to head."


"Well, get back down there. Stay together this time, and hit them hard, then fall back in contact. We need them to come to us from the direction of our choice, and the only way to make sure they do is for you to lead them right in. We've got you on our pads and helmet HUDs, and Despreaux or I can guide you, roughly, at least, if you lose orientation on our position."


"Got it," the cavalryman said, glad to have orders, even if they were mildly crazy. "You do realize that there are over two thousand of them, right?"


"Fine," Roger said. "Just get them to the stream, and Turkol will do the rest. Oh, and when you get close, you'd better start sounding your horns."


* * *


Roger strode along the line of digging riflemen and grinned.


"I thought you New Model Army boys could dig! What are you, a bunch of women?"


A shovelful of wet dirt, half mud, came flying out of the darkness and hit his chest in answer.


"We're so good we can hit you in the dark, Sir!"


"As long as you can hoist them as well as you throw them," Roger said with a laugh. "We've got about two thousand Boman coming at us, so I think you're going to appreciate a wall in a little bit."


"Don't worry, Your Highness," one of the riflemen said. "We're not afraid to die for the God."


A quote came to mind. Roger couldn't remember who'd said it, but it sounded like Miranda MacClintock.


"You're not supposed to die for your God, soldier. You're here to make sure the other poor sod dies for his."


"Nice," Bes said as Roger walked back to the command post. The low wall and fighting trench the soldiers were erecting was backed with a small bastion for the commanders. Considering that they'd only been working on it for half an hour, it was quite an accomplishment.


"It was a quote," the prince admitted. "I swear, every good military line has already been used by somebody." He looked at the developing defenses and shook his head. "Very nice. I suppose if we can't win with this, we don't deserve to. I wonder how it's going north of the river?"


 


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