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CHAPTER SEVEN

Roger's head jerked up as the first line of scummies burst from the undergrowth. The tribesmen had been hidden in the jungle to one side of the beaten-down path between the two city-states, and their charge had caught the caravan by surprise, perfectly positioned in a narrow channel between the jungle and the Chasten River, with no room to evade them.


The prince checked his immediate impulse to order the mahout to countercharge with the aggressive flar-ta and threw his rifle to his shoulder instead. He caught one of the better dressed scummy barbarians in his sights and squeezed just as the ragged line came to a momentary halt and hurled its throwing axes.


It was the first time the company had dealt with that particular threat, but they were ready for it. The Marines on the ground lifted their Roman-style shields (design courtesy of one Roger MacClintock), and the rain of small axes scattered off of them like hail. It was sharp hail, however, as a yelp of pain from one of the riflemen proved. The wounded private hobbled backwards, his calf a bloody mess, and his place was taken by one of the second rank.


The humans were badly outnumbered, and the scummies hit them at the run, but the shield wall stopped them cold. The barbarians had never encountered the technique, and the bristle of spears from the rear rank, coupled with the stabbing short swords of the front rank, baffled them.


They paused, uncertain how to respond, and that momentary check was their doom. The stalled line of tribesmen was perfect meat for a tactic so antiquated to the humans that it was practically prehistoric. The sergeant major barked a command, and the Marines showed that perfect drill for which they were justly famous, jabbing their swords forward in unison and stepping forward to drive the tribesmen back from the vulnerable mounts.


The disciplined dike of shields and swords had also bought time for the single flar-ta-mounted bead cannon to be brought into action. Betty had finally been convinced that the noisy thing wasn't going to hurt her, barring some painful strap bruises, and she stood still as a statue while Berntsen and Stickles serviced the cannon. They walked the huge beads across the stalled crowd, killing half a dozen scummies with each shot, and the undisciplined tribesmen, totally unprepared for slaughter on such a scale, could stand the fire for only a few rounds. The rear ranks started to peel away and run back to the jungle almost instantly, quickly followed by the rest, and the less fleet footed of them fell under a brutal avalanche of javelins ordered by the irate sergeant major.


As Captain Pahner had anticipated, however, the majority of the attack had been directed at the remainder of the convoy, not Bravo Company, and things had gone far less well there. The noncombatants had fled to the river, some of them even diving in to escape the attacking tribesmen, while the majority of the guards, fighting as individuals against knots of tribesmen, had been quickly overrun and dragged from their mounts to be butchered despite their armor.


"Julian!" Pahner snapped. "Armor up your team. Bravo Company, prepare to wheel!"


Cord and two of the members of Julian's squad whose powered armor was off-line scrambled up on Patty as Roger rolled her into position behind the thin line of humans. The Mardukan settled into place behind Roger and prepared to wield his long spear while the Marines lifted their shields to cover the prince. Bodyguards or not, they had clearly accepted that his participation was a given.


There was still some fighting going on in the caravan, where armed drovers struggled desperately to hold onto their lives and their livelihoods, but many of the barbarians had already fallen to looting as the short platoon which was all that remained of Bravo Company of the Empress' Own countermarched to the rear.


Roger directed Patty's mahout to a position on the Marines' jungle flank as the cannon-armed packbeast fell in behind the tiny force. The Marines paused again, pulling fresh javelins from the quivers over their left shoulders. Then the sergeant major snapped a command, and they hurled the weapons at the rampaging tribesmen and charged forward with the deep, guttural yell which had been part of the Marine tradition for well over fifteen hundred years.


The tribesmen suddenly found themselves under attack from the flank. The flight of javelins was bad enough, but the bead cannon punching lines of death through their ranks was terrible. They tried to rally to face the charging attackers, but the humans were totally unlike the other caravan guards. Those guards, however courageous or skilled with their personal weapons they might have been, had fought as individual warriors, but the Marines weren't "warriors" in the Homeric tradition. They were soldiers who fought not as individuals, but as a deadly, trained and disciplined team, and they'd maintained their interval and dress despite their charge.


They slammed into the scummy force like a hammer hitting glass.


Dozens of the much larger tribesmen were simply bowled over and slaughtered by the charge, falling under the Marines' boots to be finished off by a slash or stab. The few who managed to survive the humans' passage and started to regain their feet were coldly dispatched by the line of mahouts, following the Marines for a chance to loot the dead.


The remainder of the barbarians were pushed to the sides, some of them spilling towards the milling flar-ta of the caravan and the Chasten, and others to the jungle side. The flankers on the river side had to contend with now thoroughly confused and angry packbeasts, who trampled several of them underfoot, but the ones on the jungle side were in even worse straits.


Roger and Patty had become a well-oiled machine, expert at the business of slaughter. There were a few ways to attack a flar-ta from the front, but most of them required the attacker to stand still to accurately throw a weapon at the beast's eyes or to brace a long spear, and those knots of stillness attracted Roger's attention. When he saw a tribesman ready himself to attack, the prince took him out with a single well-aimed round, but aside from that and an occasional shot at a notably better armed or dressed scummy, he let Patty carry the battle.


The flar-ta obviously had a thick strain of capetoad genes. She was not only aggressive, she was nasty. She spent no time lingering over kills—she simply spitted and gored enemies on the run, then charged on to the next group. She seemed to live for battle, and it was a terrifying thing to watch . . . so terrible that as she cleared the line of embattled Marines and emerged on its flank, most of the remaining scummies broke off their attack on the company and concentrated on the rampaging flar-ta out of simple self-preservation.


It started with a gathering hail of throwing axes. Most of them were poorly hurled, but the constant increase in the sheer volume of projectiles forced the two shield-bearing Marines to intercept them instead of attacking themselves. Next, the barbarians tried to circle the beast, dashing this way and that to get past its deadly horns. The Boman's main close-combat weapon was a long battle ax, and those tribesman who managed to get in close wielded their broad-bladed axes to good effect, inflicting terrible wounds upon the prince's mount.


Roger slid his rifle into its scabbard and drew his pistol, picking off the tribesmen as they rushed in to attack Patty. But there were simply too many of them for one pistol to stop, even in the hand of someone with his skill and enhancements. Patty bellowed in enraged pain as the first axes bit into her thick hide, but retreat was not an option. They were effectively holding the flank of the entire company, and if they fell back, the scummies would pour past them and take the line of Marines in the rear.


The battle hung indecisively in that bloody stalemate which characterizes most hard-fought actions. There was no longer room for maneuver, or tactics; it was stand or die, until one side or the other finally broke and ran.


* * *


"Howahah, cousin!" Honal shouted as he threaded his civan through the trees. "Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea after all!"


"We'll see," Rastar snorted, dropping his reins and controlling the civan with legs alone as he drew four of his dozen pistols. "If we survive."


Honal looked around at the cavalry troop. Most of its men were from his household, since virtually all of Rastar's troop had been killed in the escape from Therdan, and he gestured to either side.


"Deploy when we clear the damned trees!" he shouted. "One volley, then in with sword and lance!"


The heavily armored troopers' answering shout was hungry and edged with hot anticipation. They'd crossed sword and ax with the Boman many times before, and the technique was simple: blast them with one shot from each of your pistols, then charge in knee to knee. Sometimes, they broke and ran. Sometimes, they stood and dragged your comrades off their mounts. But whichever it was, it was always going to be someone else dying.


There were nearly a hundred and fifty in the company, including the few survivors of Rastar's guard, and as they came into the open area along the Chasten their column spread expertly to either side and their worn steeds rose to the challenge of battle as usual. The omnivorous civan knew a good battle always meant a good feed afterwards, and these civan were getting hungry enough to eat their own riders, much less fallen enemies.


Rastar looked to either side as the company took its dress.


"Are you ready, cousin?" Honal asked, true-hands taking up his lance while he held his reins in his lower false-hands.


"As always," the prince replied, and let his eyes sweep the mounted line. "Let's stick it to these barbarian bastards!" he shouted, and an angry snarl answered him. The few Boman killed today would never repay the loss of Therdan and the League of the North. But it would be a start.


"Volley!"


* * *


Roger whipped his leg out of the way as the battle ax sank into Patty's shoulder right where his ankle had been. He finally got the recalcitrant magazine to seat, and shot the scummy in his screaming face as he tried to work the broad ax back out of the wound. The range was close enough for the ritual scars on the scummy's forehead to be clearly visible, and the blood splashing back from the bead impact coated Roger's forearm.


Patty streamed blood from dozens of wounds. Individually, none were immediately dangerous to something her size, but all were deep and painful, and she was becoming increasingly frantic in her attacks, occasionally spinning in place to bring her tail into play. But the Boman had become more expert at avoiding her, or perhaps only those who'd already been experts survived on the blood-soaked ground around her. Whatever the explanation, the mass swarming in on her was mostly dodging her lunges and spins, charging in whenever she paused and dealing steadily mounting damage to her unprotected flanks.


Roger, Cord, and the two Marines had managed to limit even those attacks, but it was becoming increasingly difficult, and more and more of the scummies made it through on every rush. As the intensity of their private battle mounted, the flar-ta, her riders, and the scummies attacking her had become so totally focused on the area around her that none of them even saw the deploying cavalry until the first volley hammered into the Boman in front of the Marines. The heavy pistol balls smashed through the packed mass of raiders, driving in against the hard-pressed shield wall, and the tribesmen found themselves once again faced by a flank attack—this one coming straight into their backs from their main direction of retreat.


The bead cannon was still plowing its dreadful holes through their ranks, the rampaging beast on their left flank had laid low dozens of their finest warriors, and the cheating bastards to their front refused to come out from behind their cowardly shields. It was just too much, and the tribesmen turned away from the Marine line and ran up the trail to escape the cavalry charge.


But that wasn't going to happen. The Northern riders slammed into them like an avalanche, firing pistols and spitting them on lances.


Rastar's charge carried his troopers through the caravan, where their ranks were broken by the still-milling packbeasts. Then they turned around and charged back into the fray, dropping their lances and drawing their swords for the best part of any cavalry skirmish. Nor had the Marines been sitting on their hands. As soon as the tribesmen broke, the company began to move forward, cutting down any resistance. The remaining clots of tribesmen in front of them were easily dealt with, and the Marines charged over their bodies to hit the Boman around the engaged cavalry force.


That cavalry was now bogged down, but it didn't seem to care. The mounted Mardukans were hacking at their enemies, seemingly intent on nothing other than killing them. Even as the tribesmen pulled members of the troop off their mounts, the leaders refused to retreat. They'd come to kill Boman, and they went about the business with grim ferocity.


* * *


Patty's assigned mahout had survived the first part of the battle by the skin of his horns, and he knew it. So when Roger ordered him to charge to the aid of the embattled cavalry, the Mardukan decided that nothing was worth heading back into that, and slid silently off the packbeast.


Roger snarled in exasperation and climbed into his old, accustomed place and patted the beast on the soft spot under its armored shield.


"Come on, Patty!" he yelled. "Time to get some of our own back!"


The tired but willing flar-ta snorted at the familiar touch, and rumbled into a blood-streaming trot. Six tons of mad were about to hit the engaged tribesmen and let the chips fall where they might.


* * *


Rastar kneed his civan, and the beast did a hopping kick that killed the Boman trying to hamstring it.


The prince, however, was having less luck. The charge had broken through the damned Boman, but it hadn't managed to shatter them cleanly, and barbarians seemed to be everywhere. Worse, they were still fighting hard, despite having been caught between two sets of enemies. Oh, many of them had fled, but others—lured by the obvious wealth of the caravan—had stayed, and the holdouts were intent on killing his men.


Like any cavalrymen, Rastar and his troopers knew that their greatest assets were shock and mobility. Standing cavalry sacrificed almost all of its advantages over infantry, but Honal's force was too bogged down to retreat. Unable to break free and reorganize for a fresh charge, they could only stand and fight, trying to cover their occasional unseated brothers and hoping against hope that the stupid barbarians would realize they were beaten.


The prince spun his civan in place again, taking the face off of one of the barbarians trying to pull him off from the side. There were two others on the far side, but he was one of those incredibly rare and gifted Mardukans who were quad-dexterous, and that had stood him in good stead in many engagements like this one, where the ability to cover his civan was paramount. He whipped all four sabers around himself in a complex and lethal pattern . . . then looked up in half-stunned amazement as a pagee thundered through the middle of the battle, bugling like a pagathar.


Three humans and a tribesman of some sort were on its back, but they were letting the pagee do most of the fighting, and Rastar could see why. The beast tore into the Boman like the poor at a holiday feast, attacking with all the ferocity of a pagathar as it gored and trampled its way through the barbarians.


It seemed to be able to distinguish friend from foe as it stepped delicately across a fallen Northerner, somehow managing to avoid crushing him in the press. Or perhaps it was the driver. He seemed to be controlling the beast with knees and voice alone, shouting commands in some sort of gibberish and laying down a heavy fire from a pistol which widened the prince's eyes even in the midst of battle. Rastar loved pistols, especially since he could fire virtually simultaneously with all four hands. But the problem with them was that they had only one shot per barrel. He had twelve double-barreled pistols scattered about his harness and gear, and, at the moment, every one of them had been discharged.


This pistol, however, was spitting shot after shot. Its ammunition seemed limitless, but then he saw the rider pause momentarily, replace a container in the grip, and then start firing again. So easily! In an instant, the weapon was reloaded. With a pistol like that, he could plow through the Boman like a scythe through barleyrice!


He killed another of the barbarians almost absentmindedly, leaning to the side to scissor the bastard's neck with the two razor-sharp sabers in his false-hands. He might as well not even have bothered; the Boman were running.


He waved to Honal, who lifted a bloody saber in response and ordered his company into pursuit. The civan-mounted force would harry the enemy into the ground; if a hand of the Boman remained alive by dark, it would be a surprise.


Now to go bargain with these "humans." Despite his confident words to Honal, Rastar was far from certain that a bargain really could be struck, but at least now he could haggle with references in hand instead of a begging bowl.


* * *


Armand Pahner gave the Mardukan cavalryman a closed-mouth smile.


"We appreciate the help," he said as the big scummy swung down from his bipedal mount. "Especially since I think you're the folks we chased out of Ran Tai."


"I would like to say that we came to aid you because we're honorable warriors and couldn't just watch the barbarians destroy your caravan." Rastar removed his helmet and rubbed his horns. "Unfortunately, the fact is that we need a job. We'd like to hire on as caravan guards, and you—" he gestured at the carnage about them and the handful of survivors from the original force of caravan guardsmen "—clearly need more of them."


"Ah." Pahner cocked his head and contemplated the Mardukan for a moment and felt temptation stir. These people were the first Mardukan troops he'd yet seen who'd actually fought as a cohesive, organized force rather than a collection of individualists. They obviously had rough edges, by human standards, but they were head and shoulders above their nearest native competition.


"You're right," he said after a moment, "but there was no gold in the mine. We're as low on cash as you must be."


"We're not expensive," the prince said with a rueful grunt. "And there will be great profit to this caravan when it reaches Diaspra. If it reaches Diaspra. We can be paid then."


"How much?" Pahner asked. "When we reach Diaspra?"


"For the rest of the trip?" The prince rubbed the crest of his helmet with one finger. "Board and tack during the trip. Two gold K'Vaernian astar per trooper at completion. Three for each one lost. Five for the commander, and ten for myself." He looked at the pistol at the human's belt. "Although I would personally consider trading quite a bit of that for one of those pistols," he added with a grunt of laughter.


Pahner pulled out his bisti root and shaved off a sliver. He offered the leader a slice, but it was refused, so he put the remaining root away while he contemplated the offer. The K'Vaernian coin was about thirty grams in weight. They had more than enough hidden in the packs to meet the Mardukan's price, but he hadn't been born yesterday. Nobody ever went for the first offer.


"One gold astar each, two for the fallen, three for the commander, five for you, and you handle the board," he retorted.


The Mardukan drew himself up and appeared ready to snarl some curse, but paused. It seemed to Pahner that he wasn't used to haggling, which didn't make much sense for a mercenary, but finally he made a hand gesture of negation.


"I agree to the coin, but you must handle board. One sedant of grain per day per trooper. Five sedant per civan. An additional ten for our followers, and five for the commander and ten for myself. And it is not negotiable; we'll have to find another employer if we can't have the board."


Now it was Pahner's turn to be taken back. He wasn't sure they had enough barleyrice to support that all the way to Diaspra, and he chewed his bisti for a few moments, then shrugged.


"We didn't bring that much chow. And I don't know a way around that. If the damned Boman are on this side of the Chasten now, we can't afford to go back to Ran Tai."


"You might have to," the cavalryman told him soberly. "These are only the outriders, not the main horde, but they swarm like maggots as they advance. The way might be impassable."


"If I have to, I'll unload the armor," the captain said with a feral grin. "I've got enough power and spares for two uses of it. This might be one of them . . . and if I unass our powered armor, don't tell me about 'impassable'!"


The Mardukan regarded him levelly, then clapped hands in resignation.


"I have never heard of 'powered' armor, but you humans have many things we've never heard of, so perhaps you can fight your way through. Yet from what I've seen of the rest of your weapons, it still seems clear to me that you will require the aid of a force of guards who fight with discipline and order, and that is what we of the Vasin are. So, what can you afford for board? We wish to go to Diaspra also, mainly because we know they'll be hiring. But . . . we're out of food. Completely. We have nothing to bring to the table."


Pahner held the native's eyes, chewing steadily on his bisti root, then nodded finally.


"Okay, we can work with that. We'll share as available, and strip the caravan if we have to. Keeping the fighters in shape is the priority, but nobody starves. How's that?"


The Mardukan commander clapped hands in agreement and held one out, palm outward.


"Agreed. Everyone to share; no one to starve."


"To a long and fruitful alliance, then," Pahner said with a smile, matching the gesture of agreement. Then he chuckled grimly. "Now comes the fun part."


 


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