34. The Battle of Sarragh's Stead
Date: 193-993 Imperial.
Location: Kerin's Tyr (0620), the Liberty Alliance, Sarragh's Stead.
It turned out that they had two days.
Maelcum got his trenches, dugouts and firing points but not his barbed wire - the messenger went off to town, and nothing came back. On the morning of the second day after the fight with the rustlers, the sound of sporadic shots drifted over the hill. In the next few minutes two scouts came galloping back into camp (they never saw the third). Three hundred Carval followed them in a contemptuous rush, ignoring the shots and sweeping into the compound to use their revolvers and sabres.
It didn't quite work out like that.
They got inside the farmstead sure enough, with no palisade or wire to form a physical perimeter, but they rode straight into Maelcum's "kill zone". The farmhouse, the barn, and the redoubt built around the well had interlocking fire over the whole area. There was nowhere that wasn't in sight of at least two of them. Although Maelcum quietly wished for a couple of medium machine guns - it's hard to hit a moving horseman with a rifle, and the locals still couldn't grasp shooting horses - the hail of fire from the carbines was telling. The Carval who swept out of the compound left forty bodies on the ground. The defenders took a couple of wounds to flying splinters.
"Next time they'll do it properly" said Maelcum. "Right, we'll get everyone in place during the lull".
The Carval withdrew to about a kilometre, behind cover, leaving snipers in the scrub to harry the defenders. The defenders harried them back, getting the better of the exchange from behind sandbags and stout wood.
The Carval had worked out that they weren't going to just ride in and shoot everybody. Their next attack was about capturing firing positions inside the perimeter, to get an easier approach to the farmhouse and cut down on the crossfire. It came under cover of smoke, with feints on the far side of the camp, and it achieved some success. A rush of attackers swept over two of the bunkers between the farmhouse and the river. They took heavy losses, but enough remained to drop into the bunkers with sword and pistol. Soon any defender who fired from that side of the farmhouse had to get their shot off quickly and duck sharpish, if they didn't want an attacker trying to put a bullet back through their loophole.
With a toehold on the grounds, i.e., a bargaining position, the Carval offered a parlay. Sarragh and Sir David went out to talk, while Maelcum watched through his rifle scope.
The Carval spoke much better Galanglic than the Artath. Perhaps it was due to their time battling the Theocratic Republic. Their leader, or spokesman, sat straight in his saddle and delivered a monologue rather as if he'd memorised it. Sir David wondered if he was just a messenger for the real leader.
"You fight well. Not like farmers. Really I should kill you all, to make an example, and burn all the farms within a morning's ride. But I like you. You can go, if you wish, all of you. Take a horse and a meat animal each, and what you can drag behind. Go more than two days' ride and we of the Carval will give you our mercy. Or join the tribe and have our protection. You have three hours to decide. Then we burn the farm."
The spokesman or leader, whatever he was, turned in the saddle and waved forward another nomad. This one was on foot, leading a six-legged poni (the nomads rode horses) which dragged an over-sized stretcher affair. On it lay four bodies.
"Here, we brought your dead. You can bury them while you decide."
It was the farmhands who'd occupied the two bunkers. They were cut about. Sir David looked at a Vargr's upper jaw, hanging on by a flap of skin, and figured this for psychological warfare. Bringing the bodies in and burying them was bound to put the wind up the defenders.
He returned the compliment by inviting the Carval to collect their own dead, sending one or two unarmed me with stretchers at a time. "Three hours should be enough for you to retrieve all these bodies" he said. "Probably".
In a dim room on the top floor, Maelcum knelt on a table well back from the window in his chameleon smock. He watched the conversation through the sight on his rifle, getting used to faces, checking for body armour. He had a look on infra red, adjusting the controls to make it look like night.
The time passed, and the Carval spokesman came back for his answer. Sir David told him that if the Carval left now he would not pursue them in his spaceship with laser turrets after they retreated from the farmstead. With the ritual exchange of sneers completed, the two parties went back to their troops. The firing started up again a few minutes later.
The Carval who'd taken the bunkers near the farm sat tight, as more pushed up under cover of smoke and musketry to join them. Maelcum and Fish watched closely, waiting for the opportunity the major had predicted, their moment for the telling counterstroke. It took about five minutes, then Maelcum picked out the Carval leaders moving in to direct an assault spearheaded from the bunkers. He called Fish and gave the order.
Downstairs the defenders unleashed a hail of fire. Seven buckets flew out of assorted farmhouse windows and sailed towards the occupied bunkers, dropping two into the nearer bunker but missing the other altogether. The massed nomads in the unlucky dugout enjoyed a brief glimpse of Anderson's Patented Fertiliser And Nail Bombs, before their hole went off the "taken" list and onto "no man's land". Meanwhile Maelcum shot the most senior-looking Carval leader through the left lung at three hundred meters, then lined up the tricky headshot on the one who seemed to do the most thinking, talking and gesturing at defensive weak spots. That one popped up to shout orders, so he took a round in the belly. The next shot went through his lowered head as he bent forward to clutch at the wound.
The organised assault turned into a wild, screaming charge. It was much like the first attack except that the nomads were coming for vengeance instead of entertainment. It did slightly better - the defenders were deprived of two bunkers that provided part of their crossfire. One of the Carval came flying off his horse, jammed a cap and ball revolver into a firing port, and ventilated the Vargr on the inside. He put another two rounds into Sir David, who was really glad he'd brought that flak vest because he got off with a couple of bruises.
In the farmyard, a grizzled rider waved a dirty yellow fur cap in a circle over his head and brought it down as if to spear the farmhouse door. Riders converged on the door and started trying to pry it open, to get inside the defences and into sword range. It was a two part door; as they got the top part open Fish sailed another nail bomb out into the yard. Yellow cap caught it, and aimed it straight into the farmhouse, over his fellows, with an exultant snarl.
It bounced once on the floor inside and skipped down the stairs into the infirmary. The explosion came a couple of seconds later.
The explosion was at floor height, in a corner, not quite under one of the infirmary cots, at the end of the row. It lifted the nearest patient half a meter, spraying blood and fur around the room, and dumped him on the floor. Splinters from the disintegrating cot joined the wave of concussion and improvised shrapnel as it spread. The second patient took shrapnel and splinter wounds that bled him to the point of heart failure in thirty seconds. The third was lucky, he only got a few minor cuts to add to his existing bullet wound. The fourth was not so lucky, a broken gear wheel hit his neck edge on. Luan, standing by the fifth cot, took wounds to her calves and feet. Her left Achilles tendon was neatly severed, but no major blood vessels went with it. She crumpled, wounded and stunned, and folded up on the dirt floor. By the time Sir David reached the cellar, leaping the last few steps and sprinting through the cloud of fine mud, she was bleeding from both ears.
Upstairs Fish heard the explosion from the cellar and swallowed hard. Great. Way to go. Just what they needed, a friendly fire incident with bombs. He picked up his next shrapnel canister and took a long look at the fuse; then he lit it and held on, biting his lip, before a final compulsive throw.
He got a textbook airburst over the farmyard, about 4 meters off the ground. The carnage was terrible. The yard went quiet for a moment, before the survivors gave a few faltering shouts and started to drift away.
In the cellar Sir David slowed to a halt, jaw hanging, eyes wild, and stared around. He began to sink to his knees, then staggered forward as he saw Luan. The world narrowed to a tunnel, darkening at the edges and muted as if underwater, as he lifted Luan's head and stared at her unblinking eyes. Then he grabbed at her wrist to feel for a pulse. He found one, and the world started to come back together.
He set to work, with a high-tech medkit that he'd kept out of the hospital supplies.
Things went mostly quiet for a few hours, with some sniping back and forth. Luan was concussed, lame, deaf in both ears, and mostly unconscious. Silea and Fish had small wounds from splinters. Sir David owed his flak vest at least one life. A third of the defenders were dead along with a phenomenal number of the raiders.
Maelcum counted over a hundred Carval dead, and wondered if they would fade away or get it together for a last assault. If they did what they should have done in the first place - set fire to the farm buildings after dark - he didn't see a way out of that. Best to forestall it then. He went to see Fish about an improvised flash hider for his rifle.
The last parley was about an hour before sunset. It was a different nomad who came, a woman and older, and Sir David thought this one might be a figure of authority. She wanted to talk to "the outsider" alone. Sarragh left them to it, with a scowl.
"You," she snapped, "you do the impossible. With all this... this fortification the mud-crawlers fight like a hundred riders. But we know how this will end, both of us. We will burn the farm, you will all die in the flames or be cut down outside, but it will cost us many riders to do this because you are here. You will have some plan, I know it. So go. Take the other outsiders, if yet they live, put them in a cart, get out of here. Leave the mud-crawlers to us. You do not need to burn with them. Well?"
Sir David gave her a level stare, leaned forward to spit on the ground, and spun on his heel. The woman shrieked and rode off.
A few minutes after sunset Maelcum switched on his chameleon smock and oozed out of the farmhouse. The defenders lost sight of him before he cleared the perimeter. The besieging Carval never saw him at all, they just saw burning tents and panicked horses as he went to work on their encampments. He shot a couple of obvious leaders first, then wounded some horses to set them screaming and panic the rest. Twice wily veterans got a few men together and came looking for the sound of his rifle, which the confusion and the pre-arranged decoy fire from the farmstead could not entirely hide. Twice he shot those hunters as they peered through the fading light. The Carval were seasoned fighters but they knew nothing of adaptive chameleon smocks or II/IR optical gunsights, and serial headshots coming form nowhere disturbed them profoundly. Maelcum shot nine men with thirteen rounds, working to build a panic since that was the only way he might conceivably attack two hundred troops without calling in artillery. A trickle of nomads did begin to ride off into the night, but most still worked to bring the camp back under control.
They didn't finally break until he took a chance and crept into a gap in the crowd to blow their powder store.
In the morning a grav APC completed de-orbit from Warne highport to disgorge a squad of mercs in combat armour. They fanned out, gauss rifles ready, deploying for a sweep-and-clear on the farmstead. A quick exchange of shouts persuaded them that it hadn't fallen after all, and they didn't need to retake it from the Carval. Jorjiak Miilaki, the Vargr landowner who'd hired the Avaricious in the first place, disembarked soon after. Even the humans present could read his horrified wonder.
Back on the highport that evening, the Avaricious took stock. Luan was in an autodoc at the residence of Baron Marie Iskuulii having her eardrums and tendon regenerated under the supervision of a Marine medic; Sir David had pulled rank (noble and paramilitary) to get her in. They were all invited to dine with the Baron on the following evening cycle.
Jorjiak paid their fee and bonus. He wanted to give more, but all his liquid cash (some from freshly liquidated assets) had gone to paying the mercenary unit to moonlight from their day jobs on the orbital. So he gave them a validated letter that entitled them to guarantee loans of up to Cr300,000 against his lands. Then he went off to procure barbed wire.
The Carval were gone, headed into the wilderness.
The farmers were still there.