Saturday, January 27, 2007

Iskander's Wildcat; Ch. 2, © C. J. Hoare, January 2007

To start at Chapter One, please scroll down to find Iskander's Wildcat © C . . . on the sidebar

As the enemy horsemen approached at a gallop, the captain of Lord Ricart's escort saluted, his voice pitched in a high quaver. "We must retire onto the infantry, my Lord. We cannot hold off a force that size."

His words made Gisel's pulse race, but seeing Ricart's disdainful glance at the enemy she hid her reaction. A score or more were charging toward them – not too many to take on with their rifled carbines, but she wasn't about to second guess the captain. Neither, it seemed, was Ricart. "Very well," he responded casually. "I've seen all I want to from here."

Gisel hesitated as the rest turned their mounts. "What about the Seventeenth, my Lord?"

Lord Ricart stared at her and shook his head. "What would you have me do – ride down there to warn them?"

"No, but I can."

He regarded her with the expression a parent uses on a wayward child. "You are my aide, or have you resigned?"

She walked her horse to him and handed over her communicator and status screen. "No, my Lord. I will return as soon as I can." This wasn't the time to revive old animosities – she'd wise-assed him at sixteen when they first met. She'd never let herself be impressed by his charm and position, or his libertine reputation, and their coolness was now an ingrained habit.

He took the equipment, staring into her eyes. "You are a fool, young woman. Go if you must, but don't get yourself killed."

Gisel slapped the reins and patted her mount on the neck – he was a strong horse, faster than most. The gelding swung about and started off at a gallop. She bent low over his neck and clung tightly with her knees.

The descent wasn't steep, but the undulations and rises seemed to flow beneath the flying horse. She reached up with her left hand to tighten the chinstrap of her broad brimmed headgear – her cavalier's hat as she called it, complete with a white plume of feathers. The pounding of the animal's hooves urged her own heartbeat to race with excitement, and the wind in her face formed a wall of air she had to gulp in order to breathe.

She rode with her eyes on the rough hillside – anxious to keep her mount from crashing into a ditch or hidden patch of brush. After a couple of minutes she felt confident the animal could guide his own progress and raised herself to look about.

To her right was the dusty road in the valley bottom. She looked for Sir Rafe's cavalry but they had to be out of sight behind a spur or around a bend. To her left were the enemy cavalry, a long carbine shot away and running level with her. Ahead she could glimpse the last ranks of the infantry column as they marched over a swell in the road. Damn! The enemy would reach them first.

She leaned forward again and pulled her carbine from the scabbard attached to her saddle. With one hand she cranked the lever action to chamber a round. She was too far from the enemy cavalry for an accurate shot, but all she needed was to alert the Seventeenth to their peril.

She braced her arm on her saddle bow and fired. No effect on the enemy. She raised the carbine by the lever and used the horse's undulating gait and the weight of the weapon to reload again. She fired another shot at the enemy.

None of them was hit, but a group of the attackers peeled away from the charge to angle toward her. Oh shit, Gisel, that worked better than you expected. Now what?

She kept up a steady fire until she reached the road, about four hundred metres behind the Seventeenth. Her warning shots had worked. The soldiers were fanning out to meet the oncoming cavalry. Well directed rifle fire could drive off even a cavalry charge – she had trained them in the tactic, but would Brandin know enough to order it? It could be too late, the cavalry were almost upon them.

Which way should she ride along the road? The horsemen making for her would catch her before she could reach the infantry. She felt like a coward, but she had no choice – she turned her mount to the right and urged him along the road away from the action. A quick look back told her that the horsemen had also reached the road, and turned to pursue her. She slapped at her mount's flanks to urge him faster – in her imagination the cold steel of the enemies' sabres was already carving into her back.

From the action behind came a thunderous volley of rifle fire. Gisel felt a surge of elation through her fear. More shots followed soon after. The rifles were single shot, but she'd trained the men to reload almost as fast as she could crank a carbine. She wished she could see the effect of her training, but she leaned over her mount's neck and urged him away.

A single shot – much closer. One of her pursuers had fired a pistol at her. She glanced back. The nearest enemy was closing rapidly. She cranked her carbine and twisted in the saddle to fire at him.

She couldn't see any effect. He still came on, now with his sabre upraised. She cranked the carbine's lever once more. That'd be her last round . . .or had she already fired it? She had a pistol – she'd better drop the carbine and grab it.

She could hear the hoofbeats of the enemy's horse even over the thudding of her own. She twisted again, bracing the carbine against her leg to fire from the hip. The head of the enemy's horse was almost level with the weapon's muzzle. Her adversary raised up in the saddle for a downswing with his sabre. As she fired, the animal shied away in fear.

She felt the shock of the sabre hitting the carbine barrel. Pain jolted into her wrist and she dropped the weapon. Glancing back, she saw the unbalanced cavalryman fall from the panicked horse. As he tumbled to the ground in a rolling, flailing heap, the horse dashed away, bucking.

One down, but three more rode just behind, flailing at their mounts' flanks to catch her. Their shouts rang in her ears.

She groped for her automatic pistol and cocked it. Beneath her, the big gelding got his second wind and galloped harder. For several minutes they dashed along the road, the only sound the drumming of the horses' hooves in the hard packed dirt. A slight rise and then the road turned around a spur.

Figures ahead – more horsemen coming toward her. She cried out, but then recognized the Iskander planet and cogwheel standard of Sir Rafe's light squadrons. Her pursuers hauled on their horses' reins as they saw the Iskanders coming, and beat at the animals' flanks and necks to turn them away from the oncoming cavalry. She turned in the saddle and loosed several shots after them.

Gisel raised up on the stirrups and waved her side onward. She let the horse slow to a canter as she tried a couple of aimed shots at the enemies' backs. No effect, but she could hear the shouts of the Iskander cavalry increase as they speeded up to go after them. She pulled her horse off the road and halted to wait for the column.

The first troopers galloped past, sabres in their hands. The main force of the squadrons arrived and kicked up clumps of dust as they slowed. The officer reined in beside her. "Lieutenant Matah, is it not? What are you doing here?"

"I rode to warn the Seventeenth and was cut off. They're under a cavalry attack. We must ride – be quick and we can save them."

The officer reacted immediately. "Forward march. Bugler, sound the gallop."

Gisel wheeled into line beside the officer and the whole formation, about 200 strong, set out along the road she had just covered. Up on the hillside, the men who had pursued her were overtaken and cut down.

She holstered her pistol as they thundered along. She drew her katana from its sheath, shorter than the cavalrymen's sabres but just as deadly. As they rode, they came upon her first assailant sitting up, stunned, in the roadway. The horses swerved aside to miss him of their own volition, reminding her that the animals were as protective of their legs as a carnivore was of its throat and belly. Horses would not deliberately run anything down.

The formation spread out where the valley bottom was flat enough to allow them. They must be close to the fight – Gisel could hear steady firing from ahead. They galloped up a rise and saw the clash before them.

The infantry were still standing. The enemy cavalry had drawn back, obviously disheartened by the steady and accurate shooting, but their officers were riding about, shouting and gesturing – collecting their straggling units to begin another, final attack. Bodies lay scattered across the ground, both cavalry and infantry.

Into the middle of this disorganized force, the Iskander cavalry charged as a dense mass. Gisel slashed at horsemen who appeared in front of her. She parried a sabre stroke from a man who wheeled his horse to fight. A trooper riding beside her swung his sabre to cut off the enemy's head with a single stroke. Then they were through the enemy ranks.

When she managed to slow her mount and turn him back, the fight had turned to a pursuit. The enemy cavalry were in retreat – fleeing horsemen climbing the slopes as fast as they could whip their mounts to gallop. She guided her own horse toward the Seventeenth, hoping to see friends still alive.

She threaded her way between bodies and a terrified horse that attempted to rise on two broken legs. The smell of blood filled the air; cries and groans came from all around. She rode over to a party of the Seventeenth who were picking up their wounded comrades. "Where is Captain Brandin?"

The corporal leading them jumped to attention and saluted. "Ye'll find him by t'wagons, Lieutenant."

She answered the salute and rode on. The bulk of the infantrymen had made a stand around the three light supply carts, using them as a barricade. Another platoon came forward from a clump of small trees where they'd taken cover. She felt relieved – they hadn't forgotten all their training in the heat of battle.

She found Brandin lying on the ground, two of the corpsmen she'd trained working over him. She swung from the saddle to see his wounds.

His face was white and drawn, but he attempted bravado. "As you see, dear girl, I am out of the fight." His right leg was deeply gashed, the bone of his thigh showing. If it weren't for the clotting spray Iskander supplied their troops he would already have bled to death.

She stood to attention and saluted. "If you have no objection, I will reorganize the company for their defense."

He winced in pain as a corpsman tightly bound the open wound. "Do so. I second the command to you."

"If you can ride, I will loan you my horse for you to go to the rear." She unhooked one saddlebag with her most important supplies and ammunition. With a quick exchange of salutes she turned and hurried away. "Sergeants to me! Platoon commanders for orders."

The company consisted of four platoons, each headed by a sergeant. When she had commanded, she had placed Crockley, an experienced soldier she'd known almost since her arrival on Gaia, as the leader of the senior platoon. She swore when she found Brandin had demoted him to corporal. So damned petty to place the best man to babysit the supply carts. One of the new sergeants had been killed in the fight and another wounded – so she made immediate changes.

"Sergeant Major Crockley is reinstated. Take back the first platoon. Sergeant Gretch, your wound will not prevent you from commanding the transport. Leave a day's rations and all the ammunition. Load the wounded on the carts and return to the river. Tonight come to the village of Borhye under cover of darkness with fresh ammunition and supplies. Move out immediately, we're getting off this damned road."

Several of the Iskander cavalry troopers rode back from their pursuit of the enemy. They halted in a cloud of dust and an NCO spoke, "Our officer asks if you need anything, Lieutenant."

"Only for him to tell Lord Ricart that Captain Brandin is seriously wounded and I am assuming command of the company. We will take and hold Borhye."

The NCO saluted and the cavalrymen rode away.

Gisel watched them leave for only a moment. "Where's Corporal Salahn? Oh, there you are. You are now sergeant of the fourth platoon. Sergeants, see to your men, send back the wounded who cannot march. Everyone takes a second bandolier of ammunition from the carts. Grab the material scattered on the ground, and be ready to move off in five minutes. Crockley, take the right flank and Salahn the left. I'll go with the forward platoon and the third will follow fifty paces behind." She turned to point up the steep hillside behind them. "We're going up there through the trees and brush, making every use of cover and supporting one another with fire if attacked. Any questions?"

Crockley saluted. "Only one, Lieutenant. Are we skirmishers or light infantry?"

"We're light infantry, and the best damned force on the battlefield. We'll be the most forward unit of the army at Borhye – and the whole battle could depend on us." She was all too aware that the bulk of the enemy army, perhaps fifty thousand strong, was still marching toward the fight. She was also damned certain that the road they followed would lead them through Borhye. Somebody had to hold them up long enough for the Tarnlanders to get across the river. "It'll be a hard fight, but are you with me?"

The sergeants responded eagerly and the men took up the cry. "To Borhye. The best damned force on the battlefield!"