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CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Kny Camsan turned his face to the North as the gray light of a rainy Mardukan dawn filled the skies. Somewhere up there, young warriors were being born. In the far hills, shamans were placing their infant false-hands on the hilts of knives and slicing the palms of their true-hands to introduce them to the pleasure and the pain of battle. Somewhere, young hunters were tracking atul for their first kill.


Somewhere, life went on.


The ax didn't quite sever his head from his shoulders. That was a bad omen, but it wasn't allowed to delay the ceremony of investment of the new war leader, and Tar Tin, the new paramount war leader of the clans of the Boman, was anointed in the blood of his fallen predecessor, as tradition demanded.


Tar Tin lifted the blood-smeared ceremonial ax over his head and waved it at the far battlements.


"We will destroy the shit-sitters who befoul this land! We will retake the city, retake our women and our children, retake all that booty they would plunder from us! We will destroy this shit-sitter army to the last soul and level K'Vaern's Cove to the very earth and sow it with salt! We shall cleanse these lands so that treacherous shit-sitters across the world tremble at the very name of the Boman and know that treachery against us is the way of death!"


The chieftains and subchiefs assembled around him cheered and brandished their battle axes, and he pointed once more at the battered walls of Sindi.


"Kill the shit-sitters!"


* * *


"They seem upset," Pahner observed.


The captain, Roger, and Julian's entire surviving squad stood in the cellar of a large, demolished house in the northern portion of Sindi. The hurricane of the rocket bombardment had turned this entire part of the city into uneven mounds and hills of rubble, and the flourishes which Rus From's engineers had inflicted, with artful assistance from touches of Gronningen's plasma cannon, only completed the air of devastation. There was absolutely nothing in the area to attract the attention of any Boman warrior, which, of course, was the entire object.


"I think you might say 'upset' was just a bit of an understatement," Roger said judiciously, striving to match the Marine's clinical tone.


"You're probably right," Pahner conceded, "but what really matters is that they seem to have themselves a new commander, and, as Poertena would say, he's a 'pocking idiot.' "


This time, Roger only grunted in agreement. There wasn't much of anything else to say, as the two of them watched their pads display the torrent of red hostile icons streaming towards the breaches left so invitingly in Sindi's walls.


Roger watched them for a few more moments, but his eyes were drawn inexorably towards the clusters of blue icons waiting for them. Those icons represented the rifle and pike battalions who had the hardest job of all, and he wondered what was going through their minds as they hunkered down in their rough fieldworks and waited for the onslaught.


* * *


Krindi Fain was quite certain that it was an enormous honor to be selected as the commander of Bistem Kar's personal bodyguard. With a whole three hours of sleep behind him, he almost felt alive enough to appreciate the honor, as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, there was a downside to his new assignment, as the echoing war cries and the thunder of the Boman's drums brought forcibly to mind.


The general wasn't quite in the most advanced position his troops occupied, but his dugout of rubble and sandbags came close enough to make Fain very, very nervous. Of course, the lieutenant—his "acting" rank had been confirmed before he turned in last night—understood why Kar had to be where he was. After yesterday, the Guard commander enjoyed the total trust—one might almost say adulation—of his troops, and their confidence in their commander had to be absolute for this to work. Which meant they had to know that "the Kren" was there, sticking his own neck into the noose right along with them.


This leadership crap, Fain thought, for far from the first time, was an excellent way to get killed.


"They're coming through about where we figured, General," Gunnery Sergeant Jin announced. The gunny and his LURP teams had been called in during the night and redistributed to put at least one Marine with helmet, pad, and communicator with each regimental commander and Kar. Now the noncom pointed to the pad open on the rickety table at the center of the dugout, and Fain managed—somehow—not to crane his neck in an effort to see the display himself. Not that it would have helped much if he'd been able to see it; unlike Kar and his staff, Fain hadn't learned to read the display icons the others were now peering at so intently.


"They seem to be throwing more of their weight on the west side than we'd anticipated, General," one of Kar's aides pointed out, and the huge K'Vaernian grunted in agreement.


"Doesn't matter in the long run," he said, after a moment. "They still have to come to the bridge if they want to get to the other side. Still, we'd better warn Colonel Tarm to expect more pressure sooner than he anticipated."


"On it," Jin said laconically, and Fain watched his lips move soundlessly as he passed the message to the Marine attached to Colonel Tarm's regimental CP.


"Looks like they're slowing up a little," someone else observed, and the entire command group grunted with laughter which held a certain undeniable edge of tension.


"No doubt they're confused about why no one's shooting at them," Kar said after a moment. "What a pity. Still, they should be running into the expected resistance just about . . . now."


A distant crackle of rifle fire broke out with perfect timing, as if the general's comment had been the cue both sides awaited.


* * *


"Contact," Julian murmured so quietly that Roger was certain the intel sergeant didn't even realize he'd spoken aloud. Not that any of the Marines in the cellar had needed to be told. They were watching their pad displays as the probing tentacles of Boman warriors ran into the first strongpoints and battle was joined.


"What do you make the numbers, Julian?" Pahner asked.


"Hard to say exactly, Sir," the NCO replied, "but I don't see how it can be much more than sixty, sixty-five thousand."


"Did we really whittle them down by forty percent in one day?" Roger wasn't quite able to keep the disbelief out of his voice.


"Probably not," Pahner said. "Oh, we could have come close to that, but it's more likely that they've got a lot of stragglers who are still heading in. They might even have a few chieftains or subchiefs who've decided not to participate in this little party, whatever the new management wants. Still, it's enough to get the job done, don't you think?"


* * *


The leading waves of Boman ran into a blizzard of rifle fire and died.


Rus From's engineers had sited the strongpoints with care. Wherever possible, they'd placed the rubble revetments where sunken lanes through the ruins would inevitably channel the heads of any invading columns into heavy interlocking fires, and the riflemen and spearmen manning those entrenchments took brutal advantage of their positions. The broken streets of Sindi ran red with barbarian blood, and fresh clouds of smoke and brimstone rose above the ruins as torrents of bullets hammered through flesh and bone.


The Boman shrieked enraged war cries as their point elements recoiled, but all they did was recoil. The clans had experienced what the new rifles could do the day before, and they were as prepared as anyone could be for the carnage they faced today. No one had ever accused the Boman of cowardice, and their frantic need to rescue their women and children drove them forward even more savagely than usual.


But for all Tar Tin's determination to storm the shit-sitter positions regardless of cost, he wasn't an utter fool, and even if he had been, many of his chiefs and subchiefs were not. They knew that driving directly into the fire zones of their entrenched enemies would invite casualties not even they could endure, and so they drew back and probed, looking for ways to bypass the dug-in defenders and get behind them.


As it turned out, there were many bypass routes. Sindi had been an enormous city, by Mardukan standards, and the full strength of the K'Vaernian army would hardly have sufficed to cover its interior in depth once the walls were lost. There simply weren't enough bodies in Bistem Kar's divisions to do that, which was why he and Pahner had placed his people in nodal positions covering primarily the approaches to the Great Bridge. They'd also paid meticulous care to planning and marking retreat routes through the rubble, complete with two alternates, for every unit. When the Boman managed to begin working their way around a position's flank through the broken stone and wreckage, the infantry manning it simply fell back—promptly—to the next prepared position on its list.


It was a dangerously complicated maneuver, requiring discipline, communication, and perfect timing, and only the army's faith in Bistem Kar and the electronic wizardry of the Marine communication links and remote sensors scattered through the ruins made it possible.


"All right, gentlemen," Kar said, looking around his command group as the last infantry battalion between them and the Boman began to fall back, "it's time we were going, too. Lieutenant Fain, if you please?"


"Yes, Sir!" Fain threw the general a salute he hoped didn't look too relieved and nodded to his top sergeant. The top nodded back, jerked his head at First Platoon, and Delta Company formed up in a ferocious, bayonet-bristling moving perimeter around the command group as it fell back towards its first alternate position.


"We're on our way, Captain," Fain heard Kar telling Pahner over the communicator clipped to the general's harness. "So far, they don't seem to suspect a thing."


* * *


The long morning wore away in a nightmare of thundering rifles, screams, smoke clouds, and carnage. It was impossible for any Boman chieftain to form a clear picture of everything that was happening, but certain essentials were clear enough.


Whatever the shit-sitters had done to Mnb Trag and his warriors when they took the city away from him, it had changed the northern portion of Sindi beyond all recognition. The Boman were hardly city dwellers to begin with, but the tortured wasteland of broken walls and roofs, heaps of rubble, and fallen timbers had obliterated the landmarks many of them had learned to recognize during their months in the city.


Yet in many ways, that actually favored them, for the burned-out shells of buildings and the haphazard heaps of stone helped to conceal and cover them as they probed for ways around the shit-sitter strongpoints. They were taking losses—hideous losses—as they stumbled into one entrenched position after another, but they were also driving the shit-sitters inexorably back. The broken city deprived the shit-sitter riflemen of extended fire lanes and left no place for those deadly pikes to deploy, and the force of Boman numbers gradually forced Bistem Kar's troops back, and back again, and back yet again.


Exactly as Armand Pahner had planned.


* * *


"And now," Bistem Kar murmured, "comes the difficult part."


Krindi Fain could hardly believe his ears, yet he knew the general was serious. The long, bitter battle had reached the approaches to the Great Bridge. In fact, most of the surviving infantry had already retreated across it. But Kar had retained his own First Division to cover the final withdrawal, and Colonel Ni's regiment had the honor of forming the division's rearguard.


The afternoon was mostly gone, and evening was coming on quickly, but the Boman seemed inexhaustible. The God only knew how many thousands of them had already been killed, but it seemed not to have fazed them in the least. Probably that was because, despite their casualties, they'd been so successful in driving back the K'Vaernian forces. Whatever their losses here in the city had been so far, they were lower than the casualties they'd taken in the jungle the day before, and unlike yesterday, they had a clear meterstick—the ground they'd gained—to prove they were winning.


They had also been killing K'Vaernians, Diasprans, and Northerners. Fain didn't know what total casualties were, but he knew they'd been painful. The worst had been the loss of the entire rifle battalion from the Tonath Regiment when a Boman thrust broke through more quickly than anticipated and cut its carefully planned retreat route. The rest of the regiment had tried desperately to cut its way through to rescue its comrades, but the attempt had failed, and General Kar had ordered the surviving Tonath battalions to fall back. It had taken his direct order—repeated twice—to convince them to break off, and they'd retreated only sullenly even then, but they must have known it was the only thing they could do.


The loss of four hundred riflemen, along with the regimental commander and the human Marine private who'd been his communication link to headquarters, had been more than merely painful, but they were scarcely the only losses the army had suffered. The best estimate currently available was that the defenders had so far lost almost twelve hundred men, almost as many casualties as they'd suffered in the all-day fight in the jungle. Yet severe as those losses might be, they were a mere fraction of the casualties the Boman had taken, and they were also the grim but necessary price the army had to pay to bait Captain Pahner's trap. Coupled with the ground the Boman had recaptured, they "proved" that the "shit-sitters" were being driven back, with no option but to continue to yield ground.


Now the trick was to get the rearguard across the Great Bridge intact and without discouraging the barbarians' enthusiasm for keeping up their attack.


The command group was already at the northern end of the bridge, awaiting Colonel Ni's troops. Captain Pahner had been pressing General Kar to fall back earlier, but the K'Vaernian Guard commander had politely but firmly resisted the human's pressure. He would retreat only with the last of his own troops, and that was the way it was.


Fortunately for Fain's peace of mind, those final troops were falling back rapidly, and the moment of the general's departure was at hand.


The lieutenant looked out over the Great Bridge and shook his head in admiration. The troops retreating across it presented a picture of absolute chaos, obviously jostling and shoving one another in their desperate haste to escape the oncoming Boman. Of course, the effect would probably have been somewhat spoiled for an observer with an eye to detail, because none of those "fleeing" soldiers had thrown away their weapons, which was almost always the first thing troops did when they'd truly been routed. Aside from that minor detail, however, the picture could hardly have been more convincing, and Fain hoped that whoever was in command of the Boman had an excellent view of it.


But the rearguard couldn't afford to present the same picture of confusion, and as Colonel Ni's reinforced regiment came into sight, it was obvious that it wasn't going to.


The northern end of the Great Bridge opened into a large plaza or square, and the Marton Regiment moved slowly but steadily backward across it. Both pike battalions were in line, facing north and three ranks deep to hold the Boman beyond hand-to-hand range. The assegai companies had each been reinforced by a hundred and fifty dismounted, revolver-armed League cavalry, each with at least two pistols, which gave each of the assegai companies almost as much close-in firepower as the regiment's rifle battalion. One of the reinforced companies of spearmen covered each flank of the pike line, while the rifle battalion moved wherever it was needed to pour in a heavy fire and drive back particularly enterprising Boman thrusts.


"Nice, very nice," Kar commented to an aide, and Fain was forced to agree. Which didn't keep him from clearing his own throat pointedly from his position at the general's elbow. The K'Vaernian turned and cocked his head at the lieutenant, and Fain gestured at the bridge.


"Sir, I imagine that Colonel Ni would be just as happy if we would get out of his way and give him room to maneuver his troops."


"My, how tactfully phrased," the towering Guard commander murmured with a grunting chuckle. But he also nodded, much to Fain's relief, and the Diaspran lieutenant muttered a silent prayer of gratitude to the God of Water and nodded to Sergeant Knever once again.


The command group moved out onto the bridge, conspicuously isolated from the rest of the army as the "panicked retreat" of the previous units streamed towards the southern bank of the Tam. Fain would have been considerably happier if the general had kept a bit closer to the troops who'd preceded them across the bridge, but Kar was in no hurry. In fact, he had a distinct tendency to lag behind even his aides-de-camp and his message runners while he watched Ni's troops falling back to the bridgehead. The barbarians seemed determined to prevent this final group of shit-sitters from escaping their vengeance, and groups of them charged forward despite the surf roll of rifle and revolver bullets, screaming their war cries and hurling throwing axes even as they were hammered down. Troopers were going down, as well, most wounded, rather than killed, especially among the pikemen, but the regiment's discipline held, and the Boman were losing at least three for every casualty they inflicted, even now.


Which didn't mean that they couldn't still overwhelm the regiment by sheer weight of numbers, Fain reflected, and dropped back beside Kar once again.


"Sir, the General might want to move along a bit faster," the lieutenant suggested diffidently.


"In a moment," Kar replied with an impatient wave.


"Sir, the General keeps saying that," Fain pointed out. He watched another wave of Boman crest and die less than twenty meters in front of the retreating pikes, and beckoned unobtrusively to Erkum Pol, who sidled closer.


"I'll retreat when I'm ready to, Lieutenant," Kar rumbled in a deep, repressive tone. "It's not going to do the Regiment's morale any good to see me go scampering off to safety, you know."


"Sir, with all due respect," Fain said diffidently, "I'm sure the Regiment would be very relieved to know you were out of harm's way. And whether they would or not, Sergeant Julian told me that Captain Pahner wants your butt at the reserve command post before the Boman come across the fucking bridge. That's almost a direct quote, Sir," the lieutenant added in an apologetic but politely firm tone.


"I said I'll come in a moment," Kar said even more repressively, and Fain shook his head.


"Erkum?"


"Yeah, Krindi?"


"Escort the General across the bridge," the lieutenant said flatly.


Bistem Kar's head snapped up, and for an instant, his eyes narrowed dangerously. Then they swiveled to Pol, who stood a full head taller than even his own formidable stature, and something like an unwilling chuckle escaped him.


"All right, Lieutenant," he told Fain wryly. "I'll go. I'll go! Who am I to argue with the mighty Erkum Pol? I don't want to get laid out with a plank!"


"I wouldn't hit you, General," the private said reproachfully.


"No doubt," Kar said, laying one hand on the towering Diaspran's upper shoulder, and then gathered up the rest of his command group with his eyes. "Gentlemen, Lieutenant Fain would appreciate it if we'd all step briskly along." He made a shooing gesture with both false-hands and flashed a bare-toothed human-style grin. "No dawdling, now!"


* * *


"Press them! Press them!" Tar Tin howled as the final band of shit-sitters retreated onto the bridge. The new war leader was trapped well back from the van of the host, but he could see the Great Bridge from his vantage point atop a collapsed house. And if he couldn't get at the shit-sitter rearguard now, he'd been in the forefront of the warriors who'd overwhelmed the trapped arquebusiers, and his ceremonial battle ax ran red with their blood.


The battle frenzy hadn't quite claimed him, but he felt the exaltation and the fire blazing in his own blood. They were only Southern shit-sitters, true, yet they'd stood and fought as courageously as any iron head—indeed, as any Boman—and the honor of their deaths filled his soul.


It had been a good battle, a great one whose grim glory the bards would sing for generations, and despite the host's losses, victory was within their grasp. However courageously the shit-sitter arquebusiers might have died, Tar Tin himself had seen the panic and terror with which the other shit-sitters had fled across the bridge. He knew the signs—he'd seen them often enough on many another battlefield. That was a broken force, one whose leaders would never convince it to stand if he could only hit it again, quickly, before it had time to untangle itself and find its courage once more.


"Once across the bridge, and the city is ours once more!" he shouted, brandishing his battle ax and waving still more of his warriors into the assault on the stubborn shit-sitter rearguard.


The host attacked with redoubled fury, but the shit-sitters were fully onto the bridge now, and it was no longer possible to threaten their flanks. The ones armed with those long, dreadful spears thickened their ranks, presenting an impenetrable thicket of needle-sharp points, and withdrew at a slow, steady pace. It was impossible to get to hand strokes with them, but at least the thicker formation also blocked their infernal arquebusiers, and the Boman pressed them harder, showering them with throwing axes. The shit-sitters' raised shields were a roof, rattling under the keen-edged rain of steel, and here and there one of them went down. But there were always other shit-sitters ready to drag the wounded to safety, and the slow, sullen retreat continued without breaking or wavering.


Tar Tin snarled, for he wanted that rearguard crushed, yet despite his frustration, he was satisfied enough. The shit-sitter rearguard might be retreating in good order, but it was retreating, and rapidly enough that the host would still arrive on the other bank before the rest of their broken army could reform.


* * *


"All right, people, let's get into our party dresses," Pahner said, and the squad of Marines around him reached for their helmets.


Roger reached for his along with them, and reflected that it was just as well that he'd spent so many days marching around the jungle in his own powered armor before the company left Q'Nkok. It had given him the opportunity to thoroughly familiarize himself with the armor's capabilities and limitations. He was still far from competent by the standards of the Imperial Marine Corps, and he knew it, but at least he was confident of his ability to move wearing the stuff.


The Marines obviously shared his reservations about his other abilities where the armor was concerned, for the plasma cannon with which his armor had originally been armed had been replaced with a bead cannon. The "stutter gun" was a thoroughly lethal piece of hardware, but its current loads, although ruinously effective against unarmored barbarians, would not take out a suit of IMC combat armor. He supposed that he might have felt a little offended by their evident concern over where his fire might go, but all he really felt was relieved.


All around him, helmets were being affixed, and he watched the HUD come up in his own visor as the helmet sealed to its locking ring. Most of the really power-intensive systems remained on off-line standby, but the armor was live, and a slight shiver ran through his nerves as he reflected upon the destructive power massed in this cellar.


As Pahner had told Rastar on the day the Northern cavalry first joined forces with the Marines, they had sufficient spares and power for two uses of the armor, and this, the captain decided, was the right place to expend one of them. Roger knew that the Marine had considered using the armor in an open field fight, but the Boman had been too dispersed. The Marines would have exhausted their power packs before they could have covered even a fraction of the host's geographic dispersal.


Which had been the entire reason Pahner had constructed the elaborate trap called Sindi.


* * *


The Marton Regiment passed the midpoint of the Great Bridge. From its central span to the northern bank, the bridge was a solid mass of Boman, pushing and shoving at one another in their determination to reach the hated shit-sitters. It was a terrifying sight, viewed from the south side of the river, and Bogess and Rus From stood watching it with a sort of awed disbelief.


The bridge was clear between the retreating K'Vaernians and the south bank, and the reinforced regiment was a minuscule force opposed to the thousands upon thousands of barbarian warriors struggling to reach and kill it. The fact that it was exactly what they had planned for and wanted to see didn't make the sight one bit less frightening, and the two Diaspran leaders turned their backs upon it by unspoken mutual consent.


Instead of watching the grim, steady retreat, they let their eyes sweep over the surprise awaiting the Boman on this side of the river.


The original architects of Sindi had built a massive, separate gatehouse and bastioned keep to cover the Great Bridge's southern end. Beyond the gatehouse was another square, even larger than the one at the northern end, and beyond that were the first rows of houses and shops. The city's street net was as tangled and convoluted as that of any other Mardukan city, and even the broader boulevards were scarcely anything which might have been called wide open, but the designers had seen no reason to build massive curtain walls along the southern bank of the Tam. The only way an attacker could reach that part of the city was across the Great Bridge itself, so the powerful gatehouse blocking access to and from the bridge was really all the protection the city had required against assault from that direction.


The current landlords had made a few changes, however. Rus From's engineers had used old fashioned sledgehammers and charges of the black powder liberated from Sindi's own magazines to demolish whole blocks of buildings on the southern side of the square, effectively extending the plaza almost another full kilometer to the south. But if they'd given it more space to the south, they'd compensated by using the rubble produced by their demolition exercises to build stone walls, six meters high and three meters deep across every street and alleyway giving access to the square. Then they'd loopholed the inward-facing wall of every building still standing around the entire perimeter of the square and reinforced most of those walls from the inside with sandbags, for good measure. They'd left two of the main boulevards unblocked on the square's south side to permit the retreat of their own troops, and aside from the Marton Regiment, the entire army had now disappeared through those openings.


Through those previous openings, to be more precise. No sooner had the last "fleeing" infantryman passed through than the engineers had sprung into action once more. The walls of sandbags they'd assembled across the boulevards weren't quite as tall as the stone walls blocking the other streets, but they were just as thick . . . and each of them had embrasures for six of the new "Napoleons" from the cannon foundries of K'Vaern's Cove.


The general and the cleric regarded those grim preparations one last time, and, almost despite themselves, felt a moment of something very like pity for their enemies.


* * *


Krindi Fain heaved a sigh of relief as General Kar and his command group climbed the steep stairs to the top of the bastion and joined Bishop From and General Bogess. He would have been even more relieved if the gates and gate tunnel hadn't taken their own share of damage from the humans' plasma cannon. Although he understood why it was just as important for the defenses on this side of the river to have been "wrecked," it still would have been nice to be able to close a good, sturdy gate of bronze-sheathed ironwood against the shrieking hordes of Boman warriors, especially with the security of both senior Mardukan generals and their chief engineer to worry about.


He made a quick inspection of his troops' positions and felt a surge of pride. His men had to be at least as nervous as he was, given that they'd been less thoroughly briefed on the plan than he, but every one of them was exactly where he was supposed to be, already laying out his cartridge box. If everything went the way it was supposed to, the rest of the regiment would retreat into the gatehouse bastions along with Fain's own company, and if the main gateway had been blasted to bits, the gates and firing slits protecting the bastions were completely intact. They certainly ought to be able to hold out against anything the Boman could do for hours, at the very least, and that should be ample time . . . assuming the plan worked the way it was supposed to.


* * *


"Now! Drive them now!"


Tar Tin's shout was as hoarse as the scream of a newly branded sorn, but he was hardly alone in that. Every chieftain and subchief was shrieking the same message, goading their warriors on, and the war leader laughed in savage triumph as the host's leading warriors drew closer and closer to the southern gatehouse. Even from his own position on the north bank, the damage that gatehouse had suffered when the shit-sitters seized the city was clearly evident. What should have been an all but impenetrable barrier had been opened like a gutted basik. All they had to do was to drive these last, stubborn shit-sitters through the shattered tunnel and the city would be theirs.


* * *


"About now, I think," Captain Armand Pahner murmured as the blue icons of the Marton Regiment crossed the green safety line projected onto his HUD, and his toot transmitted the detonation code over his armor's com.


The micromolecular detonator had been designed to handle anything from highly sophisticated chemical explosives to small thermonuclear devices. The design team which had produced it had never even considered the possibility that it might be used for something as crude as black powder weapons, and they might have been offended by such a plebeian misuse of their ultrasophisticated brainchild.


Pahner could not have cared less about that. All he cared about was that it did precisely what he wanted it to do and ignited the quick match fuse running to the five hundred black powder claymore mines emplaced along the west side of the bridge.


The mines didn't detonate simultaneously. Instead, a rolling wall of fire and smoke raced clear across the bridge from just beyond its midpoint all the way to the northern bank of the river.


* * *


"Now!"


Colonel Ni's deep-voiced shout rang out, and every one of his pikemen squatted as if simultaneously stricken by diarrhea. The six hundred or so Boman who'd been outside the claymores' kill zone were too stunned by the cataclysm behind them to react, although there was very little they could have done, anyway. As the squatting pikemen cleared their line of fire, four hundred riflemen and three hundred revolver-armed cavalrymen opened fire at point-blank range. The bridge was so narrow that the K'Vaernians' and Northerners' ranks could be only twenty men across, but they could fire three ranks deep, and as each group of sixty fired, it squatted in turn to clear the fire of the group behind it. The firing sequence began with the cavalrymen; by the time it reached the second group of riflemen, there was not a single living, unwounded Boman on the entire length of the Great Bridge.


* * *


Sergeant Major Eva Kosutic paced back and forth along the gun line atop the rubble-built wall on the western side of the square. She hadn't been happy about being stuck here in the city while the troops were actually engaged in the field, especially when Roger and his Mobile Force had been fighting for their lives. But she was about to make up for her recent inactivity, she thought, listening to the crashing thunder of the Marton Regiment's volleys with a cold, thin smile.


"Load with grape," she told the gunners she and her initial cadre of naval artillerists had trained, and her smile turned even colder and thinner as she considered the surprise present they had for the Boman.


"Beware of Armaghans," she told the distant barbarians softly. "Especially when they bear gifts."


* * *


Tar Tin stared in horror at the Great Bridge.


Half a kilometer of Boman warriors—almost six thousand of them—had been ripped apart and strewn in bloody wreckage all along the northern half of the bridge. No doubt the host had lost many more than that during the fighting across the city, but not in such an eyeblink of time. Not so . . . horrifically. One moment they'd been living warriors, fierce and proud, screaming their war cries as they surged forward to close with their shit-sitter enemies; the next, they were so much shredded meat and blood, blown and splattered across the paved roadway. Blood ran from the bridge's storm drains, not in trickles but in streams that splashed into the river below and dyed it until it looked as if the Tam itself were bleeding to death.


And even as he stared at the carnage and destruction, even as the shit-sitter rearguard turned and jogged into the shadows of the broken gate tunnel, yet another huge explosion roared through the humid air. He watched the cloud of smoke and dust billowing up from the middle of the center span and hammered the edge of his ceremonial ax on the heaped stone upon which he stood, screaming his fury. The accursed shit-sitters had blown up the bridge behind themselves! Despite the panicked rout of almost their entire army, they were going to escape him because some demon among them had planned even for this contingency!


Curses and howls of baffled rage rose from thousands of other throats as the rest of the host realized the same thing. Warriors shrieked promises of dire vengeance, promised the gods the slow, lingering death of whatever shit-sitter had planned that ambush and that escape from their wrath.


But then the dust and smoke began to dissipate, and all of the curses, all of the shouts, faded into a breathless silence as the Great Bridge emerged slowly from the haze once more.


Tar Tin realized that he was holding his own breath, leaning forward, staring with hungry eyes as the bridge reemerged, pace by pace. Perhaps, if the gap wasn't too wide they would still be able to get across. Perhaps a temporary span, or—


A shout of triumph arose—first from one throat, then from a dozen, and finally from thousands. The bridge stood! The shit-sitter explosion had blasted away the raised stone guard walls on both sides, and taken a ragged bite out of the eastern side of the roadbed, but that was all. All!


"Now you will all die, shit-sitters!" Tar Tin screamed jubilantly. "So clever you were—so brilliant! But nothing stands between you and our axes now!" The paramount war leader of the clans raised his ax of office overhead in both true-hands, and his voice rang out like the trumpet of the war god.


"Forward the clans! Kill the shit-sitters!"


* * *


Armand Pahner inhaled in deep satisfaction as a fresh wave of Boman began thundering out onto the gore-splashed roadway of the bridge. His greatest fear had been that the barbarians would refuse to thrust their heads into the trap awaiting them on the south bank of the river. He'd had no choice but to set up the claymore ambush, because it had been imperative that there be a clean break between the K'Vaernian rearguard and the first ranks of barbarians to cross the bridge. The rearguard had to have time to file through the bastions' gates and bar those openings behind them, because he'd dared not let them into the killing ground with the enemy still in contact. Any force small enough to fit onto the bridge would have been easily outflanked and destroyed once the Boman had room to deploy around them, and the rest of the waiting troops couldn't have fired on the Boman without killing their own rearguard. Not to mention the fact that any premature firing might warn the barbarians of what was coming in time for them to refuse to cooperate. Yet even though he'd had no option but to place the claymores, he'd been more than half afraid that if the ambush worked, the Boman would recoil, refusing to continue their advance lest they run into additional, similar ambushes.


The only answer he'd been able to think of was to make the Boman think the defenders had done their level best to destroy the bridge entirely. The theory had been that the barbarians would figure that they wouldn't have tried to destroy the bridge, unless they'd been afraid of being pursued. From which it followed that this was the ideal time to pursue them. And so Corporal Aburia had worked with exquisite care to prepare a black powder "demolition charge" which would look spectacular as hell, do a fair amount of superficial damage, but leave the bridge structurally intact. He'd been a bit anxious about asking the corporal to tailor that precise a charge with something as crude as black powder, but she'd come through with flying colors.


Now he watched the bridge filling once again with close-packed Boman, and keyed his communicator.


"Here they come, Eva," he announced over the dedicated channel to the sergeant major. "Don't let anyone get too eager."


* * *


Honal stood peering through the firing slit in the wall of what once had been a shop of some sort. He had no idea what sort of goods it had sold, nor were there any clues to give him a hint. All that was left was a large, square, empty room with heavily reinforced stone walls. Well, that and the swivels, mounted on heavy timbers, driven into the ground, which the K'Vaernian Navy had contributed to the campaign.


The Sheffan nobleman rested one proprietary false-hand on the swivel beside him. For all intents and purposes, it was a small muzzle-loading cannon with a shot weight of no more than a single human kilo which took its name from the way it was mounted aboard K'Vaernian warships, which had a habit of mounting a dozen or so of them along each rail as antipersonnel weapons. Julian had taken one look at them and pronounced that they were the galaxy's biggest muzzle-loading "shotguns"—whatever a "shotgun" was. Honal didn't really know about that. All he knew was that this particular swivel was going to help him extract his long awaited vengeance for murdered Sheffan, and he showed his teeth in a snarl any human might have envied.


* * *


Bistem Kar watched from atop the gatehouse bastion as the unending tide of Boman swept towards him down the bridge. It scarcely even hesitated when it reached the area Aburia's charge had damaged, and the general's growl of satisfaction rumbled deep in his throat as the barbarians kept right on coming.


"Lieutenant Fain!"


"Yes, Sir?"


"Lieutenant, those bastards may get suspicious if we just welcome them into our parlor, but I don't want to put down enough fire to discourage them, either. I think one company of really good shots ought to be just about right. Would you happen to know where I might find one which would be interested in the job?"


"As a matter of fact, General," the Diaspran lieutenant told him with a slow smile, "I do. Company! Action front!"


* * *


Tar Tin snarled as the first shit-sitter arquebus fire began to crackle from the bastions to either side of the broken gatehouse. So, some of the rearguard had had the presence of mind to position themselves there in an effort to delay the host's pursuit of their fleeing fellows! It was a courageous decision, he conceded, since they could not have an unlimited supply of ammunition and whatever happened to the rest of their army they were certain to be dug out of their positions eventually and killed. But it was obvious that there weren't enough of them to stop the Boman. Dozens of warriors fell, or plunged over the side of the bridge into the Tam, as bullets struck them down, but even as dozens fell, hundreds continued to charge forward at a run, and already the host's fleetest warriors were passing through the broken gatehouse.


The bridge was theirs! The bridge was theirs—and soon all the rest of the city, and their families, and their stolen booty would be theirs once more and K'Vaern's Cove would be doomed!


* * *


Eva Kosutic watched the barbarians spilling into the enlarged plaza like a dark, living tide pouring into a dry lake bed from a sluice gate. They came onward, waving their axes, screaming their war cries, and she felt her gunners stirring uneasily. Not nervously, really—more . . . impatiently. They wanted to open fire now, but she only stood there, hands clasped behind her, and waited for the lake to fill.


* * *


Sna Hulf of the Ternolt Clan of the Boman charged through the ruined gate tunnel, howling his war cry. The exultation of battle carried him forward like a man possessed, eager to prove his courage and punish all shit-sitter treachery. He'd never experienced anything quite like the charge across the bridge, never been part of such a focused, unstoppable surge. It was as if the bridge were a narrow streambed, and the host a mighty tide driving through it, gaining speed as its bed narrowed until it erupted from the far end of the channel with a force nothing could resist! The weight of all his fellow warriors, of all the clans, thrust him forward with the massive momentum of literally kilotons of bone and blood and muscle.


Yet even in his exalted mood, he realized there was something strange and different about the square at this end of the bridge. It was larger than it had been the last time he was here, and all of the streets leading off of it seemed to have disappeared. And there were holes in the walls of all the buildings. And what were those shit-sitters doing on the platform atop the wall where the main boulevard had been?


He stared at the shit-sitters—the only ones he could see—while the momentum of his fellows propelled him forward into the square. They stood behind some sort of strange, two-wheeled carts which supported metal tubes of what looked like dark bronze. The tubes were long, and slender, unlike anything he'd ever seen before, yet there was something about them . . . something familiar, if only he could place it . . .


* * *


"I've never seen so many Boman in such a small space in my entire life," Honal remarked to Rastar and Chim Pri.


"Like a stock pen full of turom at branding time," Pri agreed, rechecking the priming caps on one of his revolvers.


"And one big pocking target," Turkol Bes added. The commander of the Carnan Battalion had borrowed one of the Marines' repeating rifles and had at least forty magazines piled up in front of him. The weapon was ridiculously small for him, but that was all right with Bes.


"And one big pocking target," Rastar agreed grimly.


* * *


"They're starting to slow down, General," Krindi Fain remarked, and Kar nodded in agreement. The general had Dell Mir's telescope back out, and was peering towards the northern end of the bridge.


"I imagine the square is beginning to fill up, Lieutenant," he said almost absently. "Even with all the pressure coming from behind them, they can only cram so many bodies into so much space." He chuckled evilly. "Of course, we're about ready to begin making room for more of them, aren't we?"


"General, Colonel Ni reports that some of the Boman are beginning to try to force the gates into the bastion," one of Kar's staffers announced, and the general shrugged.


"I suggest you tell him not to let them do that," he said in mild tones, still peering through his telescope. "Although," he added dryly, "I imagine they'll have something else to distract them very shortly."


* * *


"Armand, we're just about full here."


Pahner grinned at Kosutic's pointed tone. The sergeant major would never come out and admit that she was feeling antsy, but her use of his first name in front of the troops, even over the dedicated command circuit, was a dead giveaway. And looking at the congested horde of red icons packing tighter and tighter together in the square, he could hardly blame her. The remote imagery from her helmet showed him a vast sea of Boman, surging this way and that while those closest to the edges of the huge mob began to hack at the barricades with their battle axes. They weren't going to get through that stone any time soon, but he didn't want them to get any ideas about helping one another swarm over their tops, either.


"How many do you figure are still on our side of the river or the bridge, Julian?" he asked.


"Call it ten or twelve thousand on the bridge, and another ten or so on the approaches," Julian replied after a moment.


Pahner frowned slightly. He'd calculated that the Boman could fit a maximum of about forty or forty-five thousand into the square beyond the gatehouse, but he didn't really think there were that many already in it. Call it thirty thousand, he decided. If Julian's estimate was correct—and Pahner rather thought it was—then the Boman were down to no more than fifty-two thousand, little more than half the size of their host before the campaign began. If things went according to plan, those on the bridge and already in the square were toast, but there was no way the limited number of suits of powered armor available to him was going to be able to simultaneously seal the bridge and round up anyone who wasn't already on it. Which meant that at least ten thousand of the barbarians were going to escape, and he hated that.


His frown turned into a grimace and a snort as he realized he was actually upset by the idea of inflicting "only" ninety percent casualties on his enemy. Hubris, he decided, wasn't something a Marine needed to go around encouraging, and a mere ninety percent casualty rate ought to be enough to encourage even Boman to behave themselves in the future.


"All right, Eva," he said soothingly. "If it will make you feel any better, go ahead and get started."


"Gee, thanks," she said sarcastically, then turned to the gunners on the platform with her, and the captain heard her over the still-open com-link.


"Open fire!"


* * *


Sna Hulf had been shoved almost directly up against one of the stone walls fronting the square by the unendurable pressure of the warriors behind him. One or two of his fellows had already lost their footing and disappeared under the shrieking, ax-waving ocean of warriors. He had no doubt that they'd been trampled into paste, and the pressure around him was becoming distinctly unpleasant, but he couldn't take his mind off those bronze tubes.


If they'd been fatter and ringed with reinforcing hoops or bands of metal, he would have been tempted to think they were bombards. But no one had ever mounted a bombard on a carriage like that, and no one had ever cast a bombard that skinny for its length. It was ridiculous. And yet . . . and yet . . .


He was still pondering the conundrum when Eva Kosutic's order reached her gunners.


* * *


The gun platforms had been very carefully designed. Aside from the twelve guns in the sandbagged barriers built to close the two avenues by which the retreating K'Vaernians had cleared the square, each battery was at least six meters above ground level, and the gun platforms themselves sloped upward towards the rear, so that the guns' point of aim, at maximum depression, was well below the level of the batteries on the opposite side of the square. After all, no one wanted any friendly fire casualties.


But if no one wanted friendly casualties, there were going to be plenty of unfriendly ones. Each round of grapeshot consisted of nine individual shot, each fifty millimeters in diameter, and there were a hundred and eighty-two guns. Just over sixteen hundred iron balls, each seventy percent the size of a pre-space baseball, ripped into the packed Boman. Anyone who got in the way of one of them simply exploded in a spray of crimson and shredded flesh, and each of them blasted its way well over four hundred meters into the stunned mass of warriors.


No one ever knew how many thousands of Boman died in that first salvo, and it didn't really matter. Even as the artillery opened fire, riflemen and revolver-armed cavalry rose atop the walls around the square, or stepped up to the loopholes, and the six hundred Navy swivels mounted behind other loopholes belched fire and smoke. The swivels were loaded with canister, not grape, and each of them sent one hundred and thirty-five musket balls screaming into the Boman.


* * *


Honal shouted with delight as he touched off the swivel. The concussion as hundreds of field guns and swivels and thousands of rifles and revolvers simultaneously opened fire was like the blow from some mighty hammer. The deafening waves of sound and overpressure seemed to squeeze the air out of his lungs, and the brimstone stench was shot through with lurid tongues of flame, like some demon's paradise turned loose on mortal beings.


To either side of him, Rastar, Chim Pri, and Turkol Bes stood at their own loopholes, blazing away with the same manic grins. Honal's assistants stepped forward and began reloading the swivel, and the cavalryman drew two of his own revolvers and emptied them through the swivel's firing slit while they worked.


Shrieks and screams of terrified agony came from the slaughter pen into which the Boman had been herded, and hell-spawned night enveloped the scene of horror as choking clouds of smoke devoured the light.


* * *


Tar Tin was halfway across the bridge when the terrible explosions began on the far side of the gatehouse. The mighty stone structure of the Great Bridge itself seemed to quiver and pulse underfoot with the fury of the shit-sitters' fire, yet even through the dreadful thunder he could hear the despairing shrieks of the warriors trapped and dying under it.


Horrified understanding smote him as the choking pall of powder smoke rose above the far end of the bridge, and a fist seemed to close about his heart as he realized Kny Camsan had been right all along. To charge headlong against the shit-sitters' new weapons was to die, and he had been fooled—duped by shit-sitter cunning into doing just that! He still couldn't see what was happening in the square ahead, but he didn't need to see to know that the disaster to which he had led the clans was complete.


All about him, other warriors heard the sounds of slaughter and realized, as he, that the shit-sitters wanted them to continue their charge forward to their deaths. For a few moments, the pressure of those behind kept them moving forward anyway, but then even those at the very rear of the column realized, however imperfectly, what was happening. The pressure eased, and the flow of movement across the bridge began to reverse itself.


* * *


"Okay, troops," Pahner said to the armored members of Julian's squad. "Time to push the little dogies along."


* * *


The true purpose of the armor was far less to wipe the Boman out of existence than to break the back of the remnant's morale.


It worked.


The armored Marines, concealed by the sophisticated chameleon systems of their armor, had actually passed through the rearmost stragglers of the Boman host without being detected. They'd split up, spreading out to cover as many as possible of the streets, alleys, and avenues leading into the square on the north bank of the Tam with at least one Marine, and now they advanced, firing as they came.


A tidal wave of flechettes, cannon beads, and plasma bolts erupted out of nowhere, tearing lethal holes through the Boman who had just begun to retreat from the holocaust on the other side of the river, and it was too much. Not even Boman battle frenzy could support them in the midst of such supernatural devastation and horror, and the warriors began throwing down their weapons and groveling on the ground, anything to get out of the hail of terrible, terrible death from the invisible demons.


* * *


Honal sent yet another charge of canister blazing through the loophole, and reached for another pair of revolvers. He stepped up to the opening and opened fire, watching still more of the trapped, screaming Boman fly back from his fire in splashes of red, and he laughed with an edge of hysteria. It was like killing basik. He could probably have wandered in with a club and killed the Boman—they were that broken.


His revolvers clicked empty, and he snarled in frustration at the interruption of the terrible frenzy of slaughter. He swung out the cylinders and began stuffing fresh cartridges into the chambers. He recapped them, closed them, and began firing yet again.


"Cease fire, Honal," someone said in his ear.


"What?" he asked, picking another target and squeezing the trigger. The Boman blew sideways, disappearing into the heaped and piled corpses of his fellows, and someone hit Honal on the shoulder.


"Cease fire!" Rastar shouted in his ear.


Honal gave his cousin an incredulous glance, unable to believe what he was hearing, then looked back out the firing slit. The terrifying warriors of the Boman were a pitiful sight, most of them trying desperately to cower behind and under the piles of their own dead, and Rastar shook him by the shoulder.


"Cease fire," he said in a more nearly normal voice. "Despreaux says to cease fire. It's all over."


"But—" Honal began, and Rastar shook his head.


"She's right, cousin," the last prince of Therdan said. "Look at them, Honal. Look at them, and remember them as they were when they came over our walls . . . and as they will never, ever be again." He shook his head again, slowly. "The League is avenged, cousin. The League is avenged."


* * *


Tar Tin stood trapped in the center of the bridge, watching the destruction of his people's soul. The pride of the warrior people who had always triumphed, for whom defeat had never been more than a temporary setback and a spur to still greater triumph, died that day before his very eyes, and he knew it. Whatever might become of the pitiful survivors of the clans, they would never forget this disaster, never again find the courage to take the shit-sitters by the throat and teach them fear. They were the ones who would cower in terror from this day forth, hiding in the shadows lest the terrible shit-sitters come upon them and complete their destruction.


And it was he, Tar Tin, who had led them to this.


He knew what the clans would require of him—if they still possessed the spirit to demand a war leader's death. And he knew what they would expect of him, yet try as he might, he could not force a way through the defeated warriors about him to attack the shit-sitters and force them to kill him. He could not even sing his death song, for there was no enemy to give him death with honor. There was only shame, and the knowledge that the warrior people, terror of the North, would be warriors no more forever.


He looked down at the ceremonial ax in his true-hands—the ax which had been borne by the war leaders of the clans for fifteen generations, and which had finally known defeat and humiliation. His hands tightened on the shaft as he pictured the shit-sitters' gloating pleasure at claiming that emblem of Boman pride as a trophy to hang upon a palace wall in some stinking city, far from the free winds of the hills of the North.


No! That much, at least, he would prevent. In this, if in nothing else, he would prove himself worthy of his war leader's title.


Tar Tin, last paramount war leader of the clans of the Boman, clutched his ax of office to his chest with all four hands and climbed upon the parapet of the Great Bridge of Sindi. The water of the Tam ran red with the blood of his people below him, and he closed his eyes as he gave himself to the river.


 


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