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CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

"Yes, Sir. I understand," the sergeant said.


"If I had a 'qualified officer' to replace you with, I would," the Marton Regiment's adjutant said. "To tell the truth, if I'd had a qualified officer to replace Lieutenant Fonal with, I would have."


"Yes, Sir. I understand."


"You don't sound like it," the battalion commander put in with a serious expression. "You sound petrified."


"I'll handle it, Major Ni," Krindi Fain said. "I'd just expected to be replaced. At most, I'd figured I'd handle the route march. But fighting them? I'm not sure I know how."


"Just do what you're told, soldier," the CO said. "I'm giving you a temporary rank of full lieutenant. You taught most of them the drill, so don't tell me you don't know it yourself. Just do what you know."


"Yes, Sir," the Diaspran began again, then checked himself. "I really do understand. And will comply."


"Okay," Ni said with a gesture of support. "Get to it."


Fain found himself walking back through the temporarily stopped division, wondering where and how he'd gone wrong.


"What's wrong, Fain? You look like somebody shot your dog."


He looked over at Julian and made a gesture of resigned horror.


"I'm in command of the company."


"Yeah," the Marine said. "I thought that might happen."


"I'm not real sure about this," Fain admitted. "It's a lot of responsibility."


"So was the training you gave them," Julian pointed out. "Same deal. Just get up there, and do what comes natural. Remember every good leader you've ever known and copy them. Slavishly, if you have to. And never let them see you slime." For some reason, the Marine found this last humorous.


"Okay," the Diaspran said.


"Here." The human dug into a pouch and pulled out a twisted piece of metal.


"What's this?" Fain asked, turning it over and over in a true-hand.


"First battle I was ever in," the Marine said, "I caught that piece of shrapnel. I held onto it for good luck. I sort of figured if I had it, I'd never get hit again. Don't know why. But it's always been a lucky piece for me."


"What are you going to do without it?" the Diaspran asked.


"I'm not going to need it for this battle," Julian said, tapping his armor. "The Boman hasn't been born that can crack this stuff. You take it. I'll be okay."


"All right," Fain said. "Thanks. And may the God of Water protect you."


"It's not me you have to worry about," the squad leader said, hefting his stutter gun.


* * *


Kny Camsan grunted in laughter.


"So that's what those shit-sitters were doing! There's an army back at Sindi, and they were trying to get back to it."


"That's nothing to laugh about," a subchief said sharply. "All our loot is back there, not just the loot from Sindi. And our women."


"Sure," the war leader replied with another grunt. "And so are ten or twelve thousand warriors with Mnb Trag to keep them on their toes. Which means their stupid army is still going to be sitting in front of the walls waiting when we get back. This was just a big spoiler raid. They wanted to suck us away from Sindi so they could get the rest of their army into position."


"Maybe," the subchief said. "If that was the idea, it worked, though."


"Of course it did," Camsan agreed. "And how much good is it going to do them? We've got the entire host almost fully assembled now, and the shit-sitters aren't just outside their walls, they're outside ours, with every warrior we have ready to come right up their backsides. They probably figured that they'd get all of our warriors out of Sindi to chase their cavalry, but they didn't, and their smart-ass plan has them stuck out where we can get at them in the open!"


"Maybe," the subchief repeated. "But we're having a hard enough time with these shit-sitter cavalry. Those new weapons of theirs are tough."


"Not tough enough now that we know where they are and what they're trying to do," Camsan shot back. "When we overrun the iron heads, we'll take their new weapons for our own. And then we'll overrun their army at Sindi and take their weapons, too. And when we've done that, there will be no army to man the walls of the Cove, and we'll overrun them, as well!"


"Let's hope it goes that way," the subchief said gloomily, "but so far, the iron heads have been doing much better out of this than we have."


* * *


"Listen up!" Bistem Kar's powerful voice boomed over the gathered infantry division. "So far, this whole war has been going for the Boman, but we're taking it to them now. The only thing that stands between us and victory is that the cavalry is trapped in there."


He gestured over his shoulder to the deep woods.


"We're going to go in there and find them. It won't be hard." There was an uneasy chuckle at that, for the crackle of gunfire was clear in the distance. "Then we're going to open up a hole and let them out. Then we march back to the city.


"I won't kid you; this is going to be a tough fight. But we can do it. All you have to do is aim low and obey your officers. Now, let's go give the Boman a little taste of what war with K'Vaern's Cove means!"


* * *


"Lieutenant Fain," the battalion CO said, "we've been tasked with putting out a company of skirmishers. Do you know the difference between skirmishing and regular fighting?"


Light was just beginning to filter through the trees, but there still wasn't enough to see your hand in front of your face, much less distinguish a white thread from a black. The entire march from the city had been made in inky darkness, and only the sheer insanity of it had prevented complete disaster. After all, the Boman had known no one would be crazy enough to try it, so why bother to set up ambushes along the route? Now, with dawn approaching, the infantry was arrayed to pry the cavalry out of its trap. If it could.


"Skirmishing means to spread out and move slow," the Diaspran said in reply to the question. "Move from cover to cover. You're trying to find the enemy force. When you do, you engage them at maximum range from cover. You try to slow them up and figure out how they're deployed, but you can't let yourself get pinned down by them, or they'll kill you."


Major Ni sighed.


"As I suspected, you know far more about it than my other company commanders. Congratulations, you just volunteered."


"Sir, this isn't a skirmisher unit," the Diaspran protested. "You use woodsmen for skirmishers. Or trained forces. It's a job for . . . crack shots and experts!"


"Nonetheless," Ni said with a gesture of command. "Get out in front."


* * *


Fain went trudging back to his new company, wondering how to pass on the word.


"Straighten up," Pol said. "Don't let them see you slime."


"Where did you hear that?" Fain asked. It was more words than Pol usually used in a week.


"Sergeant Julian," was the only reply.


Fain started to think about that. How would Julian handle the situation? Well, first of all the sergeant would be hard as nails. No protests would be allowed. Julian would explain what they were going to do in a way that made clear he was a past master of the technique . . . whether he'd ever heard of it before in his life or not.


Fain had trained with the Marton Regiment, so he knew, in general, who were the crack shots. There were quite a few who were good in Delta Company, and that was important with skirmishers.


Before the recently promoted lieutenant knew it, he'd practically walked into his formation.


"All right, you yard birds!" he snapped. "We've been detailed as skirmishers. And we're going to show the rest of these shit-for-brains what that means . . . !"


* * *


Roger had just taken a sip of water from his camel bag when the skirmishers pelted back from their sentry posts.


"Here they come!" one of them shouted as he tumbled over the hastily constructed wall.


The former laborers of the New Model Army had worked hard through the night, and the fortifications were as well constructed as anyone could have done in the time available to them. They consisted of a shallow wall and a trench behind the stream, all covered by a thin line of infantry pickets. Most of the cavalry had made it back and was forming up at the rear, and as soon as Pri pronounced them ready, they would head for the flanks to reinforce the Marines.


Cases of spare ammunition and rations from the pack turom were spaced along the wall, runners had been assigned, and most of the pack animals—including a recalcitrant Patty—had been sent to the rear, up the road towards Sindi, to clear the fighting position.


All that was left to do was fight.


"Captain Pahner, Roger here," Roger said into his radio, considerably more lightly than he actually felt. "We're about to engage an estimated two to three thousand screaming barbarians. I have, as usual, created numerous bricks without straw. And might I say once more how incredibly much fun this whole Mardukan Tour has been. We really must try it again sometime."


Despite himself, Pahner chuckled, but the chuckle had a grim note.


"Just finish them off and sit tight," he said, "because it doesn't look like I'm going to have anyone to send you for a while. The north bank is heating up."


* * *


One of the skirmishers paused, raised a hand, and made the sign for lots of good guys. Then he corrected it to bad guys.


Krindi Fain grunted and motioned for the spread-out company to move over to the left. The Marines had a term for the movement he wanted, but at the moment, he couldn't think what it was. The idea, though, was clear. When they opened fire, the Boman would know they were being attacked, and if the skirmishers attacked from right in front of their own main force, the Boman would know where their enemies were and where to counterattack. But if the skirmishers moved over to the side, the Boman might be suckered into attacking in the wrong direction.


In which case, they were basik on toast.


Most of the lead scouts, all people who'd at least been in the woods a couple of times, started making signals that they were seeing Boman, and Fain waved the rest of the company to a halt. Clearly the enemy was concentrating on the cavalry, but sooner or later they were bound to notice the force at their back. It was time to get it stuck in, so he grabbed a messenger and scribbled a note.


"Verbal to the Major. Tell him we're engaging . . . enfilading the Boman from the west flank."


"Enfil . . . enfol . . ."


"Never mind. Just tell him we're hitting them from the west. Get going."


The messenger disappeared into the undergrowth, and Fain looked around. He caught the company's sergeant's eye and made a gesture across his throat, followed by a complicated and terribly rude one.


Time to get it stuck in.


* * *


Honal looked up at the sudden sound of a light crackle of riflery from the south.


"About time," he grunted.


The Boman had gotten increasingly aggressive even as windrows of their dead built up around the perimeter. The undergrowth beyond the crude abattis was now so shot torn that the jungle forest had been opened up from the ground to about five meters up, and it was all swarming with Boman.


"Just in the nick," Rastar agreed, tightening a bandage around one of Honal's upper arms. "Spread the word to get ready to move out. When we do, I want the sick, the halt, the lame, and the dead on saddles. And we need to be ready to cover the retreat. These bastards are going to be really irritated to see us leaving, and it isn't going to be easy to convince them to say goodbye."


* * *


Fain looked to both sides. The Boman in front had gone to ground under the hail of fire from the skirmishers, but more were probing around the flanks.


"Tell First Platoon to fall back and south," he said, and turned to Erkum Pol. "Get the reserve to the south and make sure our way home stays open. Don't let them run, and make sure they shoot low."


"Okay," the private said, and loped off.


"Come on, Major," the newly promoted company commander whispered. "Where's the rest of the pocking army?"


* * *


"Colonel," Bistem Kar growled, "what seems to be the problem?"


"I'm ordering my lines, General," the Marton Regiment's commander said. "It will take a bit more time."


The officers of the regiment were in a huddle by the side of the Therdan-Sindi trail, and it was apparent from their expressions that the K'Vaernian commander had appeared in the midst of an argument. A heated one, from the looks of things, and that was never good news in a combat zone.


"Ask me for anything but time," he muttered. Unfortunately, Colonel Rahln, the regimental commander, like too many of Kar's senior officers, was not one of his long-term Guard officers.


The field army had been organized into five divisions, each of three regiments, plus the attached League cavalry. Each regiment consisted of one four-hundred-man rifle battalion, two four-hundred-man pike battalions, and two hundred-man companies of assegai-armed spearmen for flank protection. That meant each regiment represented almost a third of the entire prewar Guard's manpower, and there were fifteen of them in the army. Kar had kept command of the First Division for himself, and he and Pahner had at least managed to ensure that all of the other divisional commanders were Guard regulars. But despite everything they'd been able to do, all too many of the regimental commands had gone to political cronies of influential councilors or merchants, and Sohna Rahln, the Marton Regiment's CO, was one of them. Prior to the war, Rahln had been a merchant involved in several businesses, notably shipyards, but not a sailor . . . and definitely not a soldier. The appointment had been a sop designed to persuade him to support the operation, and now it was endangering it.


"Colonel Rahln, could I speak to you for a moment in private?" the general rumbled.


"I have no secrets from my officers," the former merchant said loftily, and Kar gritted his teeth. One thing he particularly disliked about Rahln was that, like many of the wealthy political appointees scattered through the force, he could never quite seem to forget his prewar contempt for the Guard. After all, if the Guardsmen hadn't been stupid—or lazy—they would have gotten real jobs during peacetime, wouldn't they? "You can have your say here."


"All right," Kar said. "If that's the way you want it. We have skirmishers out there, from your regiment, who are in contact with the enemy and need your support. We have cavalry trapped out there that needs to be relieved. You have the point regiment, and you are personally responsible for the movement of your units. You will begin the assault in the next ten minutes, or I'll have you shot."


"You can't do that!" Rahln snapped. "I'll have you broken for even suggesting it!"


The K'Vaernian general reached out and lifted the lighter officer into the air by his leather harness. The colonel squawked in shock at the totally unexpected assault, but his shock turned to terror as the Guard officer flipped him over a hip and then slammed him onto the ground on his back so hard that everyone within three meters actually heard the air driven from his lungs.


Kar dropped to one knee and took the colonel by the throat with one false-hand.


"I could squash you like a bug," he hissed, "and nobody would care. Not here. Not in K'Vaern's Cove. Now get a spine, and let your officers—who, unlike you, know what they're doing—get to work!


"Nine minutes," he added, with a shake of the throat.


"Are you sure that was a good idea?" his aide asked as they headed back to the command post.


"The only problem with it was getting that cretin's foul slime on my clean harness," the general snorted. "His battalion commanders are professionals. If he leaves them alone, he'll make the deadline. But cut orders to replace him with Ni if he continues to fuck up. And send a team of Guards . . . with revolvers and a watch."


 


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