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CHAPTER SIX

"You know, I really didn't miss this," Roger said as he slid down off of Patty.


"To be terribly honest, Your Highness," Pahner replied, wiping the sweat off his brow, "neither did I."


The first day of travel had been uneventful as the company followed one of the regular caravan trails down out of the mountains. Within a few hours of leaving Ran Tai, however, they'd hit the enveloping, sweltering clouds of the jungle-covered lowlands and passed once more from the region of relative cool back into Marduk's standard steambath.


Cord and the other Mardukans had, of course, been delighted.


There were quite a few of those "other Mardukans," now, including the recently hired mahout who climbed up on Patty and guided her to the picket lines. The mahout and his fellows were only a few of the "camp followers" the company had attached, however. Their stated destination, Diaspra, had been avoided by caravans for the last several months as the advance of the Boman barbarians made travel out of Ran Tai's high valley increasingly problematical. The riverport city lay on the Chasten River where it broke over the edge of the Diaspran Plateau, and the Chasten drained directly into the vast gulf or inland sea they'd identified from their rough, deplorably undetailed maps as their next objective. The locals called it the K'Vaernian Sea; the humans called it the shortest path to the open ocean which lay between them and their ultimate goal. That made Diaspra their only logical intermediate objective, and their departure had been delayed repeatedly as caravan masters solicited their services for protection on the trip.


All of which explained why the Marines and their beasts were accompanied by two caravans of flar-ta and turom, along with another two dozen civan-riding guardsmen. Between the Marines' heavy weapons and unusual tactics and the additional guards, they might be able to beat off a few attacks.


Roger looked around as the rest of the caravan came to an untidy stop and the Mardukan guards straggled out to assist the Marines. One of Pahner's requirements had been that the guards be willing to follow his orders, even the strange ones, and now the Mardukans began digging foxholes while the Marines laid out mono-wire and directional mines. As always, however, the majority of both groups were on guard, and the work parties hadn't hesitated to conscript liberally from the chaotic mob which wasn't attached to any particular caravan but had simply followed the departing party.


"I don't know about this," the prince said, shaking his head. "There are too many for us to cover, and not enough to really help."


"It'll be all right," Pahner said. "There's a reason the Marines stay around you. They're obviously the best armed and most dangerous of the bunch, so any attacker in his right mind is going to hit the rest of the caravan first."


Pahner patted his breast pocket absently for a moment, then extracted a piece of bisti root, sliced off a thin strip, and popped it into his mouth. He replaced the rest in his pocket, and his eyes considered the river that the caravan route followed while he chewed.


"The Boman are also still reported to be on the north side of the Chasten, not our side. But you're right—we still need more guards. I wish we'd been able to hire that group of mercenaries you tangled with. They might have been a tad incompetent, but we could have fixed that quickly enough."


"Well," Roger said with a chuckle, "I understand they had to get out of town pretty quick." He shook his head again at the thought, then frowned. "And I don't know how we could afford a company of mercs, anyway. We're tapped. Remember, Captain?"


"Oh, I don't know," Pahner said with a faint smile as he masticated the mildly stimulating sweet root. "I'm sure something could have been worked out."


* * *


"Don't worry, Rastar," Honal said. "We can work something out."


The Vasin prince looked at the strip of overcooked atul meat, then out at the encampment. Many of the women had only a scrap of root or bark in their hands, but they were tearing at that avidly, and there was a faint underlying whimper from the young who had already finished their scraps.


"We're just about at our end, Honal," he said quietly, and gestured at the encampment. "We have three times as many women as men, and many of the men aren't warrior bred." He clapped his false-hands in despair. "We might have made it on our trade in Ran Tai. Now . . . I don't know. If we can make it to Diaspra we might be okay. But we couldn't make it the last time."


"I'm sorry about Ran Tai," Honal said. The younger Mardukan looked as if he would like to die. "It was just . . . Those guards were so stupid. And if the gold had been there like everyone said—"


"What?" his cousin asked. "We would have taken it? Are we Boman? Are we bandits, cousin? Or are we Vasin, the last of the war bands of Therdan and Sheffan? The Warriors of the North? The Free Lords? Which, cousin? Warriors or bandits?"


The younger Mardukan didn't answer. He only retreated into his own misery, and Rastar took a nibble of the leathery meat, then stood and walked into the camp. He squatted down in the midst of the nearest group of females, pulled out of one of his knives, and began cutting the strip into very small pieces.


The women remained sitting, looking in shame at their hands as the last Prince of the North shared his meal with the starving younglings.


* * *


"That was wonderful, Kostas," Roger said, and took another bite of the succulent drumstick. "What was it?"


"Ah, that was wine-basted basik, Your Highness," the valet-cum-chef replied, and Roger looked at him sharply. The only times the prince had heard the term before had been in reference to humans . . . and it hadn't been very complimentary.


"Huh?" he remarked suspiciously and glanced around at the other members of the dinner party.


Cord was doing his best to look inscrutable, but the company had been around Mardukans long enough to recognize suppressed mirth. O'Casey had set down her morsel uneaten as she raised an eyebrow at the cook, but Kosutic—after a look around—ostentatiously popped her next bite into her mouth and chewed with obvious relish.


"What did you say it was?" the sergeant major asked innocently.


"I finally found out what 'basik' meant when I was shopping in the market," the valet told her with a puckish grin. "It's the Mardukan version of a rabbit. It's apparently shy and somewhat stupid, and it's generally herded into a circle and killed with clubs."


"Hah!" Roger laughed. He raised his glass of the local sweet wine and took a drink. "To the basik!"


"Hear, hear," Kosutic agreed, clearing her own full mouth. "And to more basik, too!" she added, looking poignantly at the empty serving platter.


"Oh, I imagine something can be done about that," Matsugae told her with a smile, and bowed himself out of the tent to a spatter of applause.


"While we're waiting for the Sergeant Major's basik," Pahner said, "I think we need to discuss tomorrow's march."


"You think we'll get hit, Sir?" Gunny Jin asked. The NCO popped a roll of sweetened barleyrice into his mouth and shrugged. "If it happens, what else is there to do? We rally around the prince and form a square."


"Maybe, and maybe not," Pahner said. "We're about out of ammunition for the light weapons, but we have the full loadout, almost, for the heavy weapons. I've been thinking that there should be a way to get them into action quickly."


"Not one that I see immediately, Captain," Gunny Lai said. She leaned back and looked at the ceiling of the tent. "We can't keep the armor going without wearing out the power packs; the little skimp of energy we've been collecting with the solar sheets isn't enough to recharge with. And without the armor, the heavies are pretty impossible to use in a close-contact fight."


"I was wondering," Roger said diffidently. "Do you think that there's a way to mount one on a flar-ta? Not a plasma cannon, obviously, but maybe one of the stutter cannons?"


"Uh." Gunny Jin frowned, considering with obvious care. "One of those things has a hell of a recoil, even with the buffers. How are we going to secure it?"


"I don't know," Pahner said. "But that's the sort of thing I was thinking of, and we certainly need to find a way to use the firepower we have left. I'm not sure we'll make it to the coast if we don't."


"We could try it with Patty," Roger said with growing enthusiasm. "Mount it behind the mahout's spot. The driver will just have to keep his head down. I've fired just about everything else off her back by now; firing a cannon shouldn't be all that much worse."


"I don't know about that," Kosutic said with a shake of her head. "There's a whole order of difference between firing a grenade launcher or that old smoke pole of yours and firing a stutter gun offhand."


"You thinking of Old Man Kenny?" Jin asked her with a chuckle.


"Yeah," Kosutic said with a laugh of her own. "That was more or less what I was thinking about."


"Old Man Kenny?" Roger asked. He picked up a sliver of candied apsimon (which didn't taste a lot better to human tastebuds than uncandied apsimon) and raised an eyebrow. "Care to enlighten us poor mortals?"


"No big story, Your Highness," Pahner told him. "Retired Sergeant Major Kenny is an instructor in the Heavy Weapons advanced course at Camp DeSarge. There've always been war stories about people firing plasma cannons and bead cannons 'offhand' or without them being properly mounted, so he decided to try it and see if there was really anything to them. He's a big guy," the CO added parenthetically.


"Did it work?"


"Well, sort of," Kosutic said.


"He hit the target, Your Highness," Pahner said with a slight smile and another sip of wine. "But he ended up about ten meters from where he started with a couple of cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder. He wouldn't have been able to hit the next one."


"Hmmm." Roger took a sip of his own wine. "So the straps had better be strong and tight."


"At the least," Pahner agreed. "The gun is going to convey a kick like a civan to the packbeast. I don't know what the damned thing is going to do then."


"Damnthings live on a different planet, Captain Pahner," Roger said with a grin. "I know; I've hunted them."


"Nonetheless, Your Highness," the Marine told him, "when we try it out it won't be with Patty and with you as the mahout. We'll have one of the professionals handle Betty, who's a bit more . . . biddable than Patty. And you won't be at the controls of the cannon, either. That's a job for a private."


"Oh, all right," Roger agreed with a small chuckle. "You undoubtedly know best."


"Uh-huh," Kosutic said as one of the mahouts followed Matsugae back into the tent with a huge platter of basik legs. "He does. He really does."


* * *


"I hope you know what you're about, cousin." Honal looked towards the sound of distant booms and the occasional bugle of a pagee in distress. "It doesn't sound good over there."


"These 'humans' should have nothing against us," Rastar said as he mounted his own civan. The beasts showed the effects of deprivation almost as badly as their riders did; the pride of his father's stables had become as gaunt as a cheap hack. "And they can undoubtedly do with some additional guards . . . particularly judging from that." He drew the first of his pistols and inserted the winding key to test the tension on the wheel lock drive spring. It was ready, and he grunted in satisfaction, opened the sealed pan, positioned the flint striker against the serrated wheel, and then jerked his head in the direction of the sounds of combat while he reached for a second weapon. "If we bargain well, they may not even realize that they can get us for the cost of a barrel of fredar!"


Honal slapped the sides of his head in agitation, then sighed.


"All right! Lead on. And this time, I'll make sure not to try to take them over!"


 


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