Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Iskander's Wildcat © C. J. Hoare, December 2006

All rights reserved.

Gisel Matah is the protagonist of my Iskander series novels. The story "Arrival" posted on this site starts when the starship Iskander arrives at the alternate world Gaia, an alternate Earth, with its societies approximately at the level of our own world about 1700. Gisel is a sixteen year old starship brat when she arrives, but quickly develops into a valuable member of the security service the Iskanders are obliged to set up.

Having discontinued posting the Arrival material, which I am reworking into a novel, I'm switching the site to "Iskander's Wildcat". This story takes place when Gisel is an eighteen year old newly minted lieutenant. She has been seconded to allied forces fighting to liberate Tarnland from neighboring states that have occupied it for a hundred years. Iskander's modern knowledge and technology has been assisting this fight for two campaign seasons, during which time their friends have come to appreciate their unconventional ideas, and foes who hate their undermining of established order have become more implacable.

Chapter One:

Lieutenant Gisel Matah rode her tall black gelding in the middle of Lord Ricart's entourage, her attention divided between the columns of troops ascending the hillside around them and the opened electronic map display velcroed to her thigh. Her official appointment was aide to his lordship, effectively she served as his staff officer in charge of monitoring intelligence updates for the two Iskander cavalry brigades. The swath of colors on her screen showed the last known positions of the whole Tarnlish army, as well as the most forward units of the enemy. From somewhere near the top of the ridge volleys of musket fire gave notice that the first clashes had already begun. Today looked like a fine day for a battle.

Sir Rafe, commander of the Light Cavalry rode up to her. "When will our artillery be across the river, Gisel?"

She keyed the pointer over the symbol of the engineer bridges a couple of kilometers behind them – half a league in the units Rafe would be used to. "One troop should be over now. The whole battery should be on the road within the hour."

Sir Rafe turned in the saddle. "Then, shouldn't I be able to see that troop from here?"

She turned to follow his gaze down the valley, the dark green line of trees along the river hiding the channel and the bridge itself. All she could see were columns of infantry emerging from the wooded riverbank, instead of the cavalry and its supports they expected. "I'll call Marc."

She entered his code in her communicator and then waited. The early summer day unfolded bright and sunny around them, and the scents of flowers and grasses heading out felt a more suitable background to driving cattle to fresh pasture than the ranks and columns of blue-clad infantry to their deaths. This was the second campaign season for the Iskander allies of the Autarch of Tarnland, and they faced a strongly reinforced army of their enemies – subsidized this year by their implacable foe, the Trigon Emperor. In the Autarch's war councils the sidelong glances and firmly compressed lips told the Iskanders their presence was less welcome since they had brought this increased wealth and power onto the enemy side. Some of the best mercenary troops in the world now opposed them. This campaign had better prove the greater effectiveness of Iskander weapons and tactics, or they would be looking for a new patron.

Gisel raised the communicator. "Marc Chronon . . . artillery HQ . . . are you there, Marc?"

"A minute, Gisel." The transmission cut off.

Lord Ricart drew rein and looked back, the contingent of officers and escorts halting around them. "Is there a problem, Gisel?"

She shrugged and waited for Marc to continue, turning up the volume so Ricart could hear. The screen on her thigh started a slow update.

At last Marc's voice came back. "We're in shit here, Gisel. A whole brigade of the Autarch's own division have taken over the bridge from us."

"What? They're supposed to be using the captured enemy bridges upstream."

"Yeah, I know. But I can't tell a royal duke to get lost and take his regiments with him." Marc was attached to the artillery brigade in the same way she was to Lord Ricart's headquarters.

Lord Ricart urged his white charger back to join her, his face suffusing with anger. "I thought Colonel M'Tov's clever system with these screens was supposed to stop these cockups."

Gisel was about to give him a short answer when a warning shout from their escort made everyone look up at the crest of the ridge. A small party of Tarnlander cavalry spurred into sight. Gisel could see wounded men reeling in their saddles, the horses' breath clouding like breaching whales they were so blown, one man crumpled over his mount's neck and tumbled to the ground. The fleeing horsemen halted as Ricart's party spurred to them.

The officer at the head, his left arm gashed red with gore, spat blood and spoke. "We are in desperate straits at the river crossing, my Lord. A counterattack. Our bridges are burning and the troops that have crossed are cut off."

Gisel caught the sickening whiff of blood as two of Ricart's escort jumped from their saddles to tend the fallen man. Lord Ricart sat straighter in the saddle as he eyed the messenger. "Damn! Where is the Autarch? Who is in command down there?"

"We do not know. We think the Autarch is on the far side of the river. Each brigade commander fights his own battle. We need your troops to come to our aid."

"Impossible." Ricart turned to Gisel. "What does your screen tell you?"

Gisel didn't answer immediately, her screen had completed updating and she busily keyed on a couple of angry red slashes to read the captions. "Oh, God damn! He's right, the captured bridges have been sabotaged – they're on fire. The whole centre of the army has been switched to cross on ours."

"By the Flame!" Ricart's anger boiled over. "Get me the Colonel."

Gisel keyed the request as rapidly as her fingers could move. As she waited for the response, a cold fear ran up and down her spine – the army had planned a surprise lunge to take the bridges and use them to catch the enemy on the march. It now looked like a trap. The enemy was advancing to attack their forward forces while the rest of their army was still held up by the river crossing. The few brigades already on this side could be destroyed before new bridges could be thrown across the river.

"M'Tov here."

"Lord Ricart to speak with you," Gisel said.

"As I expected. Sorry your Lordship, but the Autarch's divisional commanders were slow reporting their loss of the bridges. I've already sent the engineers downriver to erect the crossing to swim your horses over. And I'm collecting pontoons for a new bridge."

Lord Ricart frowned as he took the communicator from Gisel. "Thank you, Colonel, but it will take hours to get the rest of my cavalry over that way."

M'Tov's reply sounded unperturbed. "Your bridge is needed to get the main infantry units of the army into action. I'm sure you see that. How much of the cavalry do you have with you?"

Ricart exchanged glances with Sir Rafe who held up his gloved fingers. "Eight squadrons. Enough to scout, but not sufficient to drive off any enemy cavalry in strength."

"You'll have to make do, I'm afraid. If we can hold until dark with the forces we have, we can return to the attack with reinforcements in the morning."

Gisel stared at Ricart's anguished expression. They were asking him to take losses for nine hours and then be ready for a renewed effort after a confused night on the exposed ground. She knew Ricart was desperate to protect his fighting strength from wastage. "It looks like an infantry fight – your cavalry need only protect their rear."

His expression lightened momentarily. "True, but I must send out a force to locate the enemy's main strength."

"What did you decide?" M'Tov asked.

"I would ask the Autarch to let my dragoons across."

"He's here with me. It's not possible. You must understand that he doesn't ask this of you and your men lightly. He's sending you his vanguard infantry, please organise the defence on the ridge until his own generals can come forward. Still a great deal of confusion turning marching infantry columns away from the destroyed bridges."

"Very well. Clear here." Ricart handed the communicator back to Gisel. "Sir Rafe, go back to the river and organise our new line of march. I don't care how you do it, but get some of our dragoon squadrons over that bridge. Send your light squadrons to me, I'll handle them until you can return with dragoons."

Sir Rafe saluted, turned his horse, and cantered away.

Lord Ricart moved his charger alongside Gisel's so he could see her map display. "What units do we have on this side of the river?"

She quickly interrogated the icons on the screen. "Three regiments of infantry, one is in action ahead of us. The troops climbing the ridge behind us are the Fifth and Seventh Grenadiers. Somewhere behind them, the First Guards Brigade are crossing our bridge – they are supposed to hold the crossroads on the top of the ridge. Their skirmisher company is below us on the road – hey, that's the Seventeenth, the guys I helped train."

Over winter, as the newly minted Lieutenant Matah, Gisel had been training a new formation in Light Infantry tactics and musketry. Musketry was the conventional term, but the unit was armed with Iskander's newest 8mm rifles. She'd put in a request to lead the company into action, but the chauvinists in the Autarch's entourage had denied it. Likely it would put some of the male officer's noses out of joint. Captain Brandin, who had taken over the command, was a hidebound soldier of the old school who didn't accept the validity of light infantry tactics. She could see now that he was marching them along the road among two or three horse-drawn supply carts, like a column of musketeers. The damned fool would handle them as no more than skirmishers.

Ricart held her eyes with his own. "Stay away from Brandin. I don't want any trouble."

"But dammit, Ricart. He's wasting them. We'll need this unit of light infantry before the day's out."

Ricart looked at the screen over her shoulder. "He's heading to the crossroads to take the village before the enemy can get there. The First Guards Brigade will hold it. It seems a sound use of the company to me."

Gisel shook her head but didn't contradict him. Light infantry could be as fast moving as cavalry on a battlefield like this one – all ridges and slopes dotted with woods and thickets. This wasn't ideal cavalry country.

She clicked on another icon. "We won't have any artillery until yours can get across the river. The Autarch's batteries are stalled at the burning bridges."

"I've heard enough." Ricart's expression was grim. "We'll gallop to the top of the ridge and see what forces our infantry are up against." He turned to the messenger and his bloodied party. "Wait here. I will have you take a message back."

When they reached the ridge top they found the infantry regiment formed into extended line, two ranks deep, the officers and sergeants rushing about steadying their troops. A great cloud of powder smoke billowed out as the musketeers fired a volley. The stinging smoke enveloped them in an acrid sulphurous fog that had to drift away before Gisel could see they were exchanging fire with an advancing line of enemy skirmishers. She could see no sign of any supporting troops on either flank of the regiment as she entered new data into the situation screen.

The hillside sloped away in every direction except to the south where the ridge continued climbing gradually to a small group of peasant hovels on the skyline, a few kilometers away. That would be the village of Borhye and the crossroads the Seventeenth was marching for. They'd have a long march if Brandin kept them on the valley road instead of cutting straight up through the wooded hillsides.

Ricart drew rein again and detailed his junior aides to several tasks as he scribbled a note. He tore the page off the pad and held it out to a very young looking captain. "Morkyn, Take those Tarnland cavalrymen with you and head along the ridge to our left. Find out how big a gap between us and our next units. According to Gisel's screen, three brigades of the Autarch's divisions will have crossed the river before those bridges were burned. The message is for the senior officer with them."

The captain and two orderlies turned their mounts and galloped away.

"Vennals, go back down the hill and get the Fifth Grenadiers here at the double. Tell their officers to deploy in line, echeloned to the right of the engaged regiment. Rendle, do the same for the Seventh, but they're to prolong the line to the left."

The officers saluted and galloped away.

It looked as if Ricart planned to make this ridge the new centre of the deployment, but what troops would become the right wing? Gisel looked up from entering her new information into the situation screen. "There must be some larger formation behind those enemy skirmishers. Can you see them?"

"No." Ricart stood in his stirrups a moment. "We'll ride up the ridge a way until we can see."

They were a smaller party of about a dozen as they rode forward along the ridge top. The escorting troopers drew their carbines from the scabbards and held them at the ready – they were advancing out into what amounted to no mans land. Gisel stilled the anxious feeling in her stomach as she followed Ricart's charger.

They rode about a kilometer to a low knoll, where the slopes on either side steepened and they could see farther into both valleys. The one on the enemy side was scarlet and green with the uniforms of advancing columns. The cadence of the marching and beat of the drums came clearly to them up the hillside. The head of one column neared the skirmishers on the ridge. Her training told her they'd use their cover to swing to one side and deploy into line. Good job they weren't French revolutionary troops with a Napoleon behind them, or the columns would continue up the ridge until they smashed through the thin line opposing them. Gisel shrugged, sometimes it helped to know all the Earth military history M'Tov had been cramming into her – at other times it just made her skin crawl with frightening possiblities.

The captain of the escort urged his mount alongside Lord Ricart's. "The enemy cavalry down there have seen us, my Lord." He pointed down the valley.

"Yes," Lord Ricart drawled. "I see them. What about any of ours? I could do with a few squadrons here."

Gisel decided to call Marc, likely Sir Rafe had arrived on the riverbank opposite him by now. As she waited for a reply she looked down to the valley road on their side of the ridge. The Seventeenth were marching along the dusty track that wound its way to the crossroads on the ridge. Jeezus! Brandin didn't know there was nothing but grass between him and the whole enemy army. They should have radios for every formation, but with the difficulty of training and the skepticism of the Autarch's hidebound commanders that wouldn't happen this year. There was nothing she could do to warn them.

Marc answered her call. "We've floated one of the 70mm guns across the river on a raft. When the horses swim across, I'll lead it up the road to Lord Ricart."

"Great, Marc, but two would be better." The 70mm artillery were Iskander's latest version of the light rifled muzzle loaders that had paralyzed the enemy attacks the previous year. With enough of them up here, they stood a chance to hold the enemy. "I'll let Ricart know, but take care not to go far up the road – we can expect enemy cavalry on it before long."

"Two squadrons of Rafe's light cavalry left here a short while ago; they're supposed to sweep the road."

"Good, I'll tell Ricart."

"I'll bring my mapping and comm gear with me," Marc continued. "Looks as if we'll need two command formations there." He'd gone through the same intensive officer training she had, and his lieutenancy was as new as her own. Because of a need for staff officers their training had been skewed to include that knowledge – Iskander could recruit local officers to lead in the field and stand against the cannon shot.

Gisel turned to scan the road below them as she moved forward to update Ricart. She could see the dust cloud of their light cavalry as they galloped away from the river; she noted how far the Seventeenth had marched – it seemed no more than a few yards from up here.

One of their escorts gave a shout and pointed. A large formation of enemy cavalry appeared on the crest a cannon shot distant, moving quickly. A few troops peeled off to head for Ricart's command party but the rest aimed for the infantry marching along the road below them. Gisel could make out the riders plainly as they drew sabres and urged into a gallop.