Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER FORTY

Fain looked around. The remnants of his company were gathered by the side of another of the numerous streams found in the Sindi Valley. They'd managed to pull out of the developing pocket, but they'd left some bodies behind. Pol was here, though, with the reserve which had hammered the Boman trying to flank them from the south. The company had found it necessary to watch its footing on the way out to avoid tripping over the bodies of dead barbarians.


The brass, naturally, had failed to provide a map, so Fain had only the vaguest notion of where they were. He did know, however, that the Boman had pulled back for the moment. They were maintaining their perimeter around the trapped cavalry, and they appeared to think the skirmishers were the only threat. That was nice, since it presumably also meant that the barbs still didn't have a clue where the real threat was coming from, which was precisely what Fain had hoped he and his people would accomplish.


The only problem was that they weren't skirmishing anymore. He needed to keep the Boman aware of Delta Company's presence if he wanted to keep them from figuring out where the rest of the relief force was, and he knew it. But he also knew that, ultimately, raiding on the flanks like this didn't do any good, however much it confused the enemy, unless there was an immediate follow on assault, and an assault was exactly what had failed to materialize. It was obvious that if the company went back, the Boman would be on them like atul on a stray turom, but unless the rest of the regiment got its head out of its ass and actually moved when he headed back in, it would only get his people killed without even doing any good.


It wasn't supposed to work this way. There should have been an assault. The Major had said there would be an assault, not just his single company thrown out here in the middle of nowhere without support.


It wasn't supposed to be this way, and he hoped it was going better elsewhere.


* * *


"Captain Pahner, Roger here."


The voice sounded in the captain's mastoid implant, and he keyed his helmet.


"Ah, Prince Roger! Still alive, according to the little chip in my brain which I suspect detonates if you die."


"I see everyone is in a good mood," the prince said. In the background, Pahner could hear continuous and heavy rifle fire. "I'd like to revise that previous estimate of mine. Make that three thousand-plus Boman."


"I really love this business," Pahner said conversationally. "I know that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but have any plans ever gone this awry?"


"I'm sure they must have," Roger said in an encouraging sort of way. "Somewhere. But I digress. I don't suppose you have anything resembling a reserve back there?"


"Actually, I did," Pahner said. "I'd detached half the laborers back to combat duties. But I just sent them north of the river to back up Bistem. It would take at least a couple of hours just to get them back to this bank, much less to your position. Why?"


"Just wondering," Roger said, and Pahner heard the distinct sound of a bead pistol firing. "We got a bit flanked here."


"Roger," Pahner said in a very calm voice, "are you surrounded?"


"I prefer to call it a target-rich environment," the prince replied. "But the good news is that they seem bound and determined to wipe us out rather than bypass us and head for the city or the D'Sley road. So we're succeeding in our mission, aren't we?"


"But I'm not," Pahner said calmly, very calmly. "I'm pulling the rest of the infantry off of the stores."


"Yeah, well, don't bother on our account," Roger said. "You couldn't get infantry here for hours, and this is gonna be over, one way or the other, in another thirty minutes."


* * *


Roger ducked as Despreaux fired over his head. Particles of black powder stung the back of his neck, the muzzle flash singed his ponytail, and only his helmet kept him from being permanently deafened.


"Careful there, honey!" he said. "I've always wondered what a toot looks like, but I don't want to look at my own."


"Screw you, Your Highness," the sergeant said as a rifle volley hammered the latest charge into offal. "That one was too close."


"Not so bad," Bes said, sticking his head out of the slit trench they'd gouged out of the muddy earth behind their original positions. "Would have been nice if we'd been able to hold the original line, but this one isn't bad, except on the flanks."


"Speaking of which," Despreaux said. "Reneb, check in. Everybody still here?"


"Still here," the team leader confirmed. "No casualties in the team so far, and we're piling them up."


"Same here," Roger said, looking out of the slit trench.


There were only twelve humans in the entire force, but each of them had begun the day with thirty ten-round magazines for their new rifles. They were conserving that ammunition as much as they could, letting the Mardukans' single-shot rifles carry most of the fight at long range. But whenever the barbarians began another charge, the sheer volume of fire from those magazine-fed rifles and the cavalry's revolvers wreaked dreadful carnage.


The ground on both sides of the trench for as far as Roger could see into the jungles was littered with Boman bodies. The barbarians had learned that the only way to get into ax range was to charge forward blindly, seeking to break through the fire zone by sheer weight of numbers. A few times, it had gotten down to hand-to-hand, but even there the Carnan Battalion and the Basik's Own had managed to hold their own, and the assaults had been repulsed.


"Here they come again!" Bes shouted, closing his rifle breech and firing at the first of the charging Boman.


This time the barbarians had managed to coordinate their attacks, which made things tougher. They came from both sides, but not directly at the flanks, which probably would have rolled up Roger's entire embattled position. The prince looked to the nominal "rear" and shook his head as the aiming reticle appeared in his vision. He tossed his magnum to Cord, who'd become quite a respectable rifle shot himself, drew his bead pistol once more, took up a two-handed stance, and began a timed fire sequence. One shot per second cracked out for each of the fourteen seconds it took the Boman line to reach the trench, and each shot took out a barbarian.


The riflemen to either side, Marine and Mardukan alike, had been hammering out fire in both directions. The rifles' black powder filled the little clearing with gray-white smoke and a smell like the breath of Hell itself, and as the Boman jumped into the trenches or struck down with their two-handed battle axes, it seemed as if Lucifer had arrived in person.


The majority of the defenders switched to their long bayonets, and Despreaux blocked the swing of an ax, buttstroked the axeman in the groin, and then ducked as Turkol Bes bayoneted someone over her shoulder. She sprang past him as Cord missed a block and was slammed into the wall of the trench. The bleeding shaman had been the last thing between Roger and an ax-swinging Boman easily as large as Bistem Kar, and the sergeant felt an instant of pure despair as she realized she could never reach him before he reached Roger.


Patty had been sent back with the other pack animals, but Dogzard had evaded all efforts to corral her and send her back, as well. As the barbarian's ax rose for the fatal stroke, ninety kilos of hissing lizard ripped into his leg from the side. The dog-lizard's attack slowed the Boman just enough for Roger to twist sideways and get a shot in. The hypervelocity bead took the axeman almost dead center, but despite the slamming impact, the barbarian still managed one last swipe at Roger. The prince blocked the blow with the sword in his right hand, then stepped out of the way as the giant toppled at his feet.


The axeman had been the last enemy alive in the trench, and Roger stepped back again as a pair of Diaspran infantrymen heaved the body out of the trench and added it to the parapet of corpses.


"God damn these stupid, four-armed bastards," Despreaux cursed wearily, wiping blood out of her eyes. "Don't they know when they're beat?"


"Sure they do," Bes grunted in laughter. "Almost as well as oversized basik."


* * *


Knitz De'n grabbed both his horns and shook them back and forth in anger. A scout had just brought back word that Sindi had actually fallen—that the city was being looted to the ground and that all of their women and children had fallen into shit-sitter hands—and this tiny group had repulsed five charges by the finest ax wielders in the Valley of the Tam. It wasn't possible.


"One more time," the subchief hissed. "One more charge, and we can destroy them all."


"No, we can't," Sof Knu said flatly. "These new arquebuses of theirs are impossible, and they fight like demons. Let us go west; surely some warriors must have escaped the fall of the city. We can find them—join with them, and harass these K'Vaernians. Harass them, and pull them down like kef do a turom. It's how we always face greater forces."


"No!" Knitz De'n shouted. "We'll kill them here and now! This is our land, taken by our arms, and no one will take it away!"


"Do as you wish," Sof Knu said, "but I'm leaving, and taking my warriors with me. I'm not insane."


The ax entered between Knu's shoulder and neck, almost severing his right true-arm. He fell, and Knitz De'n dragged the ax free with a wrench and waved it in the air.


"Do any others dispute my right of command?" he snarled, looking around the group of sullen barbarians. "One more charge! Into the face of death I fly! With the heart of an atul and the strength of the pagathar! Wesnaaar!"


* * *


"I don't believe it," Despreaux said, and Roger looked up from bandaging Cord.


"This is a joke, right?" he said as he watched four Boman charge out of the brush. The unsupported quartet was about as much threat to the combat veterans dug in to await it as a similar number of children.


"Either berserk, or doing it for honor," Pri said. He gave the barbarians another look and grunted. "Berserk."


"Well? Is anyone going to shoot them, or are we just going to let them kill us all?" Despreaux asked tartly.


Four bead pistol shots cracked out before a single rifle could speak, and the Boman flew backwards in explosions of gore.


"What?" Roger said, holstering the pistol and returning to his asi's bandage. "Like that?"


"Yeah," Despreaux said quietly into the sudden silence. "Like that."


"You know," the prince said, never looking up from the bandage, "one of these days, I'm going to be in a fight where I don't kill anything."


"That'll be the day," the sergeant replied sadly.


* * *


"You know, this could turn out to be a nice day after all," Krindi Fain said as regular volleys started hammering to the east.


Despite the lack of support, the former sergeant had sent snipers forward to peck at the Boman line. The response had been violent, but uncoordinated, with nearly three hundred Boman chasing the snipers into the woods . . . where the survivors of his hundred-man company had finally ambushed them at the edge of a thicket. The company's fire had piled up most of the barbarians for very little loss, which had been one of the first things to go right all day. But nice as that had been, the sudden, massive firing crashing out to the east now was the most blessed sound he'd ever heard.


"Our job's done," he said. "Let's go find the good guys. And for the God's sake, keep an eye out! The Boman are going to be swarming around the flanks, and we don't want to get shot by our own people, either!"


"Can we loot the ones we killed, Lieutenant?" one of the troopers asked.


"Not until after the battle," he snapped. "Now let's move out while the moving's good."


"But we're gonna retreat," the trooper protested. "We won't be able to get nothin'."


"You're gonna get my foot up your ass if you don't shut up," Erkum Pol said. "You heard the Lieutenant. Move it!"


"Time to leave, people," the company commander said, pointing slightly to the south of the firing. "About there should be good."


* * *


"Right there!" Rastar shouted as the civan lurched to its feet. He spurred to the west, revolvers streaming smoke and flame. Half a dozen of his troopers rode with him, their massed fire tearing a hole in the Boman line, and then all of them dodged aside as the herd of stampeding civan thundered past them.


The loose civan, driven by Honal and a dozen more mounted troopers and maddened with fear from the firing and blood smell behind them, smashed into the already breached Boman line, throwing it even further into chaos. The regular volleys from the south, when most of the previous firing—light as it had been—had come from the southwest, had thrown the enemy totally off balance. Caught between two fires, the barbarians on the south side of the perimeter hadn't known which way to turn.


The barbarians on the other three sides had no such doubts. They charged forward when they saw the cavalry slipping out through the hole in the line, but only to run into regular, slamming volleys of aimed rifle fire. The three thousand cavalry in the pocket had been low on ammunition, and barely a tenth of them had been armed with rifles. The men of the five rifle battalions Bistem Kar had peeled off and assigned to Major Dnar Ni, who had replaced the recently deceased Colonel Rahln as CO of the Marton Regiment, suffered under no such handicap. There were two thousand of them, and they slammed volley after volley into the packed barbarians. The four-armed Mardukans could load, prime, and fire their weapons without even lowering them from the firing position, and their rate of fire was incredible by any human standard. The Boman were crowded so closely together a single bullet could kill or wound as many as three, or even four of them, and each rifleman was sending six aimed rounds per minute straight into them. Not even the famed Boman fighting frenzy could carry them forward into that vortex of destruction, and the warriors in front of the firing line were driven to ground.


The warriors to either side of the relief force riflemen spread wider, seeking to find and envelop their flanks, only to encounter assegai-armed spearmen and recoil afresh.


"Message to Colonel Des," Kar said. "He's to refuse his right flank and withdraw. Same message to Colonel Tarm, but he's to refuse his left."


The K'Vaernian general looked up with a nod as Rastar reached his command group and reined in.


"Prince Rastar."


"General Kar," the prince said with a matching nod. "Nice of you to show up."


"Had a few problems with a subcommander," the K'Vaernian admitted. "They're solved. How many are we looking at?"


"Not the entire host, thank the gods." The cavalry officer slid off his civan. "I think Camsan figured out where we were headed sooner than we'd planned. Whatever happened, he scattered his own troops and the first ones to reach him through the woods here in an effort to keep us from getting back to Sindi, and that's all we've got to worry about right this minute. The rest are still back there, coming down from the north to join up. Only a few of them actually found us, I think, but that, unfortunately, seems to include Camsan himself, so the coordination's been fair. And all the rest of them are undoubtedly coming on from behind him."


"As long as it's not the full hundred thousand already, we should be fine," Kar said. "We need to retreat smartly, though."


"Oh, yes," Honal agreed fervently, riding into the conference. "I don't want to spend another night like that last one."


 


Back | Next
Framed