33. Dust and Bullets
Date: 191-993 Imperial.
Location: Kerin's Tyr (0620), the Liberty Alliance, Sarragh's Stead.
"The Carval? They are many. Many guns and horses. They fight Theocratic Republic, take their guns, control other tribes. Because they stop the Theocratic people, they say they are lords of these lands, between the towns and the mountains. They come to the farms, the camps, and call for 'tribute'. People they take, and animals and weapons and food. Now other tribes are Carval. You no pay tribute, they start raiding. Kill people, take herd. Many plains people move away and leave land to them, or they join and become Carval. Farm people go too. We think maybe we move, find new pastures, hard journey but no Carval. But we try new guns first. You teach."
Sir David listened to Goniss, the leader of the six Artath, and then took them out to the firing range for a little demonstration. The Artath put four rounds a minute into a target at one hundred meters, standing in his stirrups, the horse ignoring the shots. He reloaded his cap and ball carbine with great flair, whipping the ramrod around in a blur. Sir David fired twenty-four rounds in the same time with a self-loading carbine. A wave of low murmurs and excited talk came from the nomads. They compared groups, and found that Goniss had done almost as well with a smoothbore carbine as Sir David using a modern rifle with an optical sight.
"You're a good shot," said Sir David, "you'll be better than me. Can you all shoot like that?"
"The Artath can shoot" replied Goniss, levelly.
The day wore on. The Artath trained and rode out with three carbines each. The first few farmhands went through the range drill as well. Pegs sprouted from the ground around the farmstead, found each other with string, and then started turning into foxholes and slit trenches. Fish wandered around cutting holes in perfectly good buildings. Silea redeployed her troupe of kids to making sandbags. And the watchman on the barn roof reported a dust column coming in, a lone rider by the look of it.
It was Goniss, returning with bad news. A Carval war party was closing in on the northeast herd. Two shepherds were driving the herd in as fast as they could while the rest of the Artath party screened them.
"What will the Carval be after, right now?" asked Maelcum.
"They want shoot herders and take some Arked. Make easier to get tribute next time."
"How long before they reach the herd?"
"They riding easy, three hours. We go back quick, we get there sooner."
"Alright. Three minutes."
Maelcum fired a string of instructions to the other Avaricious, the farmhands, the children, and anyone else who came near enough. Precisely three minutes later Goniss, Maelcum, Sir David and four of the more adventurous farmhands rode out, heads spinning. Behind them, the last of the children vanished indoors and the remainder of the carbine-savvy farmhands went into the foxhole by the well.
"So", said Maelcum to Goniss once he was sure the horse wasn't going to offload him just yet, "can we find any sort of cover to fire from?"
"Grass, small slopes, dust from herd. Few bushes. Nothing to stop bullets."
"We'll use the dust." He thought for a few seconds. "Tell me, what would the Carval normally do if..."
Sir David, Maelcum, and two farmhands dismounted just before the group emerged on the far side of the herd and took prone firing positions as the last few furry pigs trotted past. The horse nomads took their mounts by the reins, and edged off with the herd, lying flat in their saddles and trying not to eat too much dust.
A few minutes later the raiding party of twenty or so Carval ran into a slow patter of aimed 7mm high velocity fire, Maelcum keeping the rate down so as to avoid giving the impression of larger numbers. It had three of them out of their saddles before they'd spread and hit a gallop. The one in the fancy hat with the lever rifle was first to go, hit by Maelcum's hunting rifle. The Carval spread to both wings, planning to circle their enemies and charge them from all directions.
Their left wing ran into a skirmish line of Artath, peeling off the herd and waiting to gun them down. That side turned into a frantic, wheeling and very deadly firefight in the dust, using tactics developed for cavalry with slow-loading muskets and revolvers. The Carval had fifty percent greater numbers, but the Artath had initial surprise and twenty rounds per minute.
The group on the ground weren't so used to dealing with horsemen who wheeled in and out of the dust at breakneck speed, darting in from all directions to fire and darting away. Two of them got shot in the back – one a farmhand who died coughing blood, and the other Sir David whose flak vest saved him. But their opponents weren't used to off-worlders who would shoot a precious and extremely valuable horse out from under its rider, then snipe the rider as he tried to get up. The two farmhands found it pretty shocking too, they almost stopped firing a couple of times.
And then it was over, four or five Carval galloping away low in their saddles.
Goniss rode up, looking quite pleased about the fresh bullet strip across his forearm, with the surviving half of the Artath. He looked at the dead horses in confusion. Sir David shrugged. "The Carval will have to prove a point, now?"
"Two days. Or three, if there is luck."
"We should get back and prepare for the real trouble" said Maelcum.