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CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

"This is actually beginning to look halfway decent," Pahner said.


"I'm glad to hear it," Rus From said. The Diaspran who'd become the chief field engineer of the K'Vaernian army stretched wearily. "We managed to get almost all of the exposed stores aboard the boats and sent them off downriver," he reported. "There's still a lot to go, but it's all on the south side of the river now, behind the surprise."


"Good," Bogess said. "Now if we can just get the army back together here before Camsan turns up—and assuming, of course, that Bistem gets back here intact—things will definitely be looking up. And it looks like Roger has smashed the Boman to the south quite handily."


"Yep," Pahner agreed. "Gotta love competent subordinates. Of course, that begs the question of who's the subordinate in this case. Speaking of which." He keyed his communicator. "Prince Roger, Captain Pahner."


* * *


Roger groaned as the attention signal pinged.


"Roger," he said. "Take that however you prefer."


"I hate to break this to you, Your Highness, but I need you to bring your butt back to Sindi. I imagine we'll be entertaining the main host here sometime tomorrow morning, and I'd like you to be present for the party."


"Gotcha, Captain," the prince said with another groan, and surveyed the troopers lying all around the reclaimed original trench line in exhausted heaps. No doubt it was all dreadfully untidy, and not at all the way it was supposed to be according to The Book, but at least all the bodies were out of the trench, and all the wounded had been bandaged.


"We'll head out in a few minutes," Roger went on. "But be aware that we had to send all of our civan and turom back already, so we're on foot. That's going to slow us down."


"Understood," Pahner said. "I'll send some troops out to meet you with your mounts. Move out, Your Highness."


"Roger, out." The prince smiled as he got to his feet. "Take that however you prefer," he whispered, and then poked the sergeant who'd lain half-asleep beside him with a toe. "Despreaux! What the heck are you doing lying around snoring when your prince is in danger?"


* * *


Krindi Fain wasn't lost, he simply didn't know where his battalion—or his regiment—had gotten to. No one else seemed to know either, but, since seeing their company commander stumbling around in the middle of a retreat looking for their parent unit would be a bad thing for morale, he'd parked the company with the supply packbeast guards and gone a-hunting.


He also wasn't asleep, simply sort of numb. Which was how he came to be walking with his eyes sort of closed when he slammed into the obstacle.


"What are you doing here, soldier?" Bistem Kar's aide-de-camp demanded as the acting lieutenant bounced off of him, and Fain's eyes went wide at the sight of all the brass standing about.


"Krindi Fain, acting lieutenant, Delta Company, Rifle Battalion, Marton Regiment!" he said, snapping a salute. "I'm looking for the Battalion, Sir!"


"Fain?" Kar himself rumbled. "Weren't you an instructor sergeant not too long ago?"


"It's a long story, General," the braced acting lieutenant said. "I think I'll let Major Ni and Sergeant Julian explain it, if I may, General!"


"Delta Company?" one of the other officers said. "I thought that was Lieutenant Fonal. I was surprised he got picked to command those skirmishers on the southwest flank, but that was you, wasn't it?"


"Yes, Sir," Fain said. "We're just trying to find our way home now, Sir."


General Kar grunted in laughter.


"That's the best description of this madhouse I've heard yet," he said, and his command staff joined his laughter. Fain was pretty sure that his participation in their humor wouldn't be appreciated, but he was too tired to really care, and he raised all four hands, palms upward in a purely human gesture.


"I'm just trying to find our unit, Sir," he said tiredly. All these clean staff officers, who'd undoubtedly had to suffer through a hot breakfast and forego the pleasure of being covered in smoke stains and blood, were making his head ache.


"Not anymore," Kar said. "Go back, get your people, and bring them up here, instead. I'll be moving around, but I'm sure you can find the headquarters. I'm sorry there's no sleep for any of us, but make sure they get a bite to eat . . . and then replace the command group security company. Colonel Ni is just going to have to figure out how to spare you, because I'd rather have combat-proven veterans watching my backside!"


"Thank you, Sir," the former NCO said.


"No," the general said firmly. "Thank you. When we hit the Boman, they didn't know which way to turn, and that was due in large part to you. So thank your company for me. When we get back to Sindi, I'll do it personally."


"Yes, Sir," the acting lieutenant said. "I better go get the Company."


* * *


It took hours to retreat through the trees. The Boman seemed endless as the long Mardukan day wore on; for every one they killed, two more seemed to spring up out of the earth. The cavalry was essentially useless, since not only were its civan all but exhausted, but it lacked the clear space to work up to a charge even if they hadn't been. The few mounted troopers with rifles had been sent to fill gaps in the line, but Rastar and Honal kept one troop in the saddle, ready to plug any sudden holes.


The pikes weren't much more use than cavalry in the close confinement of the jungle, but the assegai-wielding spearmen proved their value again and again during the chaos and confusion of the withdrawal. The Boman probed around the flanks, and even turned them a few times, only to be driven back and pounded into the ground. It seemed, as the choking pall of gun smoke rose like thick fog through the canopy, as if the withdrawal would never end. The nightmare struggle, crash of rifles, scream of bullets, and shriek of the wounded and dying were all part of some eternal, unending purgatory from which there could be no escape, and all anyone knew of it was the tiny part that he himself endured.


But, in the end, the withdrawing regiments finally reached the edge of the trees, and the whole, dreadful engagement could be seen.


* * *


Pahner saw it from the walls of Sindi, and shook his head as the units began to emerge. Bistem Kar had pulled out most of his dead, and all of his wounded, and he'd taken a fraction of the casualties he should have. Of course, he'd had an enormous advantage in terms of his troops' weapons, but Pahner suspected that the K'Vaernian general would have succeeded in a battle against an equally armed force, as well. There was a name that hovered on the edge of his consciousness, something about a wall. That was what Kar reminded him of, a stone wall nothing could break, even as he moved his units like dancers in a thunderous ballet of battle.


The pike battalions came first as the K'Vaernian forces began to clear the edge of the jungle. It was clear to Pahner that Kar had been forced by the combat environment to reorganize his forces on the fly, and the rifles continued to fire further into the jungle as the pike units shook out into line and dressed ranks. From the looks of things, they hadn't been heavily engaged in the previous fighting, and it was likely that the Boman had not yet discovered just how hard a target an unshaken wall of pikes was.


As the pikes settled into place, other units began to emerge from the jungle. Rastar's cavalry came first, much of it dismounted by now. The wounded and the dead came next, covered by walking wounded and spearmen. The riflemen came last of all, falling back with an iron discipline Pahner could feel all the way from the walls. It was a discipline he and his Marines had trained into them, but he knew only too well how that discipline could have vanished if the troops had feared for one moment that their commander was irresolute. Obviously, they had no such fear where Bistem Kar was concerned.


The trickiest moment came when the pike blocks had to open ranks to let the riflemen pass through, but Kar managed the maneuver so adroitly that the Boman never even seemed to recognize the moment of opportunity.


By the time the Boman realized what was happening, the retreating army had reformed itself into a huge, hollow square of pikes. In effect, there were no flanks for the barbarians to attack, any longer, and the entire formation marched slowly but steadily towards the gates of Sindi. Time and again, masses of Boman swept outward, hooking around in an effort to find an open flank to exploit, only to find themselves held well beyond hand-to-hand range by the pikeheads while aimed volleys tore them apart. Once or twice, enough barbarians managed to circle around the pike square to bring it almost to a halt, but each time, Kar concentrated his riflemen to bring a devastating fire to bear and literally blasted a path through them.


In the end, even the Boman were forced to admit that they could not overwhelm their enemies, and the triumphant relief force broke free of the sea of barbarians and began to funnel back through the gates while a steadily contracting shield of pikes, covered by rifles on the ground and on the walls alike, held off the barbarians' last, despairing charges.


* * *


Throughout the endless, exhausting day, Krindi Fain had stood at the edge of the command group and watched the general work. Kar had stood still and calm, hands clasped behind his back, and only occasionally snapped out an order. But whenever he did give an order, aides and messengers scurried to obey.


Fain didn't have to worry about that, though. He'd deployed his company around the general, and that was that. The new company commander realized that his own blundering into the group around the general was at least partially to blame for the change in his command's assignment, since it had pointed out a certain weakness in Kar's security arrangements. There was no way he should have been able to, more or less, sleepwalk past the command group's previous guards, and he was determined that no one else would sleepwalk past him. Not that it required a great deal of personal effort from him. Delta Company's skirmishers, their rifles held muzzle-down and to the left, like some of the Marines, glared balefully at anyone who approached the general. Nobody was going to sleepwalk past these guards.


That eager alertness had left Fain free to watch the progress of the battle, and he'd recognized that in Bistem Kar he saw someone operating on a level of competence he could recognize and appreciate but never hope to approach himself. Now he watched the Boman attacks trickle off as darkness finally fell and the last of the relief force, including the command group, withdrew behind the walls of Sindi.


* * *


Kny Camsan stood in the evening rain and stared in disbelief at the walls of Sindi.


It couldn't be true. It was impossible! Yet the evidence was there before his eyes, impossible to deny.


He had trusted Mnb Trag to hold Sindi in his absence, and he wanted to blame the old chieftain for failing him. But no one could look at those walls and blame Trag. Even all that the shit-sitters had done to the host throughout this long and terrible day paled beside what they'd done to Sindi. Camsan could not imagine what had torn and ripped the massive walls that way, but there were dozens of breaches through them—huge wounds through which the shit-sitters must have stormed to wrest the city from Trag and his warriors.


"What do we do now?" one of the other chieftains demanded harshly.


"We gather our numbers throughout the night," Camsan replied, never taking his eyes from the ravaged walls of the city which was to have been his capital.


"And what then?" the chieftain pressed, and Camsan turned to face him.


Tar Tin was of the Gestai, one of the larger Boman clans, and the Gestai had been among the most restless under Camsan's leadership. Tar Tin himself was a chieftain of the old school, one who believed in the exalted power of the battle frenzy to carry warriors to victory over insurmountable odds, and that made him dangerous. Worse, he'd been one of the stronger supporters of the war leader Camsan had replaced after the debacle at Therdan, and his resentment at being pushed aside by those who'd supported Camsan ran deep.


"And then we pin the shit-sitters and starve them," Camsan said sharply.


"And starve our women and children right along with them?" Tar Tin more than half-sneered. "Truly a plan of rare genius!"


"It's the only way!" Camsan shot back forcefully. "The losses we've taken charging into their guns again and again today are proof of that!"


"I say that it is not the only way," Tin spat. "The shit-sitters themselves have broken and torn the walls which might have held us out, and they hold our women and children hostage against us. Do you think that they'll hesitate for a moment to kill those women and children—the women and children you gathered together here that they might be 'safe'—once they realize they themselves are doomed? We must attack—now! We must storm through the gaps they made for us in their own foolishness and overwhelm them before they destroy the entire future of the Boman!"


"That is madness!" Camsan protested. "Didn't you see what their new weapons did to us in the forest? Don't you realize that if they can tear such rents in walls of stone and mortar, they can do far worse to our warriors if we allow them to catch us in the open? No, we must find another way!"


"We must attack!" Tin snarled, even more loudly. "That's what true Boman do—they charge, and they die. And then other Boman charge over their bodies, and still others, until a charge strikes home and we triumph!"


"We've lost thousands this day!" Camsan snarled back. "And if we assault those walls, today's losses will seem as nothing. It will be Therdan all over again, only many times worse. What good will we do our women and children by charging to their rescue only to be destroyed ourselves? Do you think the shit-sitters will hesitate to kill them once they've destroyed the host, and the threat of our vengeance no longer hangs over them?"


The war leader clapped his hands in a gesture of violent negation.


"To charge a prepared enemy with the weapons these shit-sitters possess would be as stupid as it would be pointless! We must find a better way!"


"It is your 'better ways' and your clever stratagems which have killed more of us than anything else," Tar Tin said in a flat, deadly voice. "I think you have lost the respect of the clans. This disaster is your doing, even more than the shit-sitters'."


The Gestai chieftain stepped back and raised his hands.


"Who is the origin of our grief? The walls of the city lie broken and open! Our warriors lie dead on the field for nothing! Whose hesitation and refusal to overwhelm K'Vaern's Cove gave the shit-sitters the time to prepare these 'new weapons,' and who led our warriors out to face them while our women and children were stolen from us?" Tin glared savagely at Camsan, and his voice dropped to deadly softness as he repeated, "Who is the origin of our grief?"


The other chieftains gathered around the argument. Most of them were far older than Kny Camsan, and more than a few had resented his relative youthfulness when he was named war leader. They'd supported his ascension after Therdan because the horrible casualties suffered trying to storm that city's walls had been enough to frighten even Boman. But now, with casualties almost as heavily piled on the field and scattered through the jungle, and with the bulk of the clans' women and children in the hands of shit-sitters, they were willing to consider another change.


* * *


"What do you think they're doing over there?" Roger asked wearily.


His mobile force had reached Sindi shortly after nightfall. Even many of the infantry had learned how to doze in the saddle now, for utter exhaustion was an excellent teacher, yet Chim Pri and his cavalry had somehow managed to dress ranks and trot jauntily through the southern gates under their snarling basik standard. Now the prince stood on the battlements, most of his weight propped on a merlon while he and Pahner gazed out across the fields.


"Jin has a LURP team keeping an eye on them," the captain said now. "We can't get close enough to tell exactly what's going on, even with the directional mikes, but it sure sounds like they're having some sort of deep and meaningful discussion, complete with lots of threats. I imagine they're discussing a possible change in the chain of command, and, frankly, nothing would please me better. This Camsan character is much too flexible and innovative a barbarian to make me happy."


"You really think they'll come at us again in the morning?" Roger waved at the heaps of Boman bodies, clearly visible to both of them thanks to the magnification of their light-gathering helmet visors. "After we did that to them in the open field?"


"I've done everything I can think of to encourage them to, at any rate," Pahner replied. "We used up almost a dozen charges for the plasma cannon blowing those nice, wide breaches in the wall, and I'll be extremely disappointed if it doesn't occur to any of them that they've got all sorts of ways into the city now. And the fact that all their women and children are in here should suggest to them that it would be a good idea for them to come and rescue them."


"And if they don't?" Roger asked. "What do we do then?"


"If they won't come to us, then we go to them—in a manner of speaking. I'll blow the Great Bridge behind us to maroon them on the other bank of the river, then head south with their women and children in the middle of a pike square, if I have to. They'll probably find a way across the river eventually—I'm sure they'll build rafts, if nothing else—but I figure we can make it almost all the way to D'Sley before they can get onto this side in any strength. There's enough left of the walls there, especially with the repairs Tor Flain, Fullea, and their people have been making, to hold easily with the rifles and the new artillery, and we'll still have their women and children as bargaining counters.


"In some ways, I'd have preferred to do that from the beginning, because whatever happens, it's going to be ugly if they come at us tomorrow. If we could get their dependents back to D'Sley and make them talk to us, and if it were handled right, by someone like Eleanora, it would probably offer the best way to settle this whole thing without huge additional casualties for somebody. Unfortunately, I didn't think we'd have time to hang around and handle the negotiations ourselves, which would have meant leaving it all up to the K'Vaernians, and much as I've come to like and respect most of them, I don't think that would've been a good idea. Even the best of them are still a bit too prone to simply slaughter their enemies and be done with it for me to feel comfortable about leaving so many thousands of noncombatants in their hands. Now that Dobrescu's come through with his coll liver oil extract, we could probably take the slower route . . . except that everything is already dug in and ready here, and there's too good a chance the bastards would manage to get across and swarm us in the open on the way back to D'Sley."


Roger turned his head and gazed at the captain's profile. Armand Pahner, he had discovered, was as complex a human being as he'd ever met. The captain was one of the most deadly people the prince could imagine, with a complete willingness to destroy anything or anyone he had to in order to complete his mission and deliver Roger alive to Earth once more. Yet for all his ruthlessness, the Marine was equally determined not to destroy anything he could avoid destroying. The prince had discovered enough about his own dark side, here on Marduk, to know how easy it would have been for someone in Pahner's place to become callous and uncaring. The Boman were only barbarians, after all. Why should their fate matter to a civilized man whose entire objective was to get off their planet in the first place?


Yet it did matter to him. As he stood there on the battlements beside Roger, Pahner had all the pieces in place to trap and destroy the Boman host. Not simply defeat it, but destroy it, in a massacre which would make today's casualties look like a children's pillow fight. The captain had worked for weeks to plan this operation, driven his Marines and his allies mercilessly to prepare and execute it, and he was determined to drive it through to a conclusion. No doubt many people would have believed that his determination sprang from a desire to stamp out the Boman once and for all, but Roger knew better. That determination sprang, in fact, from a desire to spare all the Boman that he possibly could. It was a recognition that the Boman would never concede defeat until they were made to do so, and that the only way to make them was to crush them militarily, with all the casualties and carnage that entailed. But the only way to prevent Pahner's allies from truly destroying the Boman by massacring the women and children who represented the continuation of the clans, was to force the warriors to admit defeat.


And so, in a way, the only way to save the warriors' families was to kill the warriors themselves, and that was precisely what Armand Pahner was prepared to do.


 


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