“If you look carefully, you’ll see horse-soldiers gathering off to the west. Then, if you turn, you’ll see more of them on the east side. I’d say that the bug-people are in for a very nasty surprise. It’s quite obvious that the Malavi will strike from both sides at the same time, and there won’t be many live bugs left after that.”
“That’s awful!” Veltan exclaimed.
“We are talking about our enemy, Lord Veltan,” Keselo reminded his friend.
There came a sudden shout from the west, and Keselo recognized the voice of Prince Ekial. The Malavi swept out of the forests to the east and to the west at a dead run. The west side seemed to be slightly uphill from the east, but not really all that much. The enemies that had been coming up the slope seemed to be caught up in confusion, not knowing which way to flee. A few of them brandished their stolen weapons, and others awkwardly raised what passed for spears, but they were obviously no match for the charging Malavi.
In the space of just a few minutes, there were only a few enemies left standing. Then Ekial shouted again, and the two bodies of horse-soldiers whirled around and rode their horses right over the top of those survivors.
Keselo shuddered. “Remind me never to insult the Malavi, Lord Veltan. I don’t think there’s anybody in the whole world that could survive an attack like that.”
The Malavi completed their second charge, brandishing their sabres in what seemed to Keselo to be a grossly overdramatic fashion.
The slope leading up from the first breastwork was now littered with dead enemies, and so far as Keselo could see, not a single one of them was even twitching.
“It gets more’n a little tricky, Subaltern Keselo,” the red-faced Sergeant Shwark said a few days later as the two of them stood beside a catapult just behind the front wall of the third breastwork. “Fire-missiles don’t behave exactly like rocks do, and catapultin’ anything downhill is a lot more difficult than uphill or straight across flat ground. A man what don’t know exactly what he’s doin’ will almost always overshoot.”
“You’re the expert, Sergeant,” Keselo replied. “I’d look sort of silly if I tried to tell a man who’s been catapulting rocks and fire at enemies for the last twenty years how he should do his job, wouldn’t you say?”
“Not out loud, I wouldn’t,” Sergeant Shwark said. “It ain’t none too polite to say nasty things about our officers.”
“You have very good manners, Sergeant,” Keselo said. “What I’d really like to see is a way to make a fire-missile break up into a lot of smaller fragments. I think we’d like to see them scatter—or spread out—before they hit our enemies. If the fire-missile stays all in one piece, it might engulf four or five enemies in fire, but these particular enemies wouldn’t really pay much attention to that.”
“Now that’s downright dumb, Subaltern.”
“I’d say that ‘dumb’ is a fairly accurate description, Sergeant.”
Sergeant Shwark squinted down the slope. “A skip-shot might work,” he said. “I don’t know that anybody has ever tried skip-shots with fire-missiles afore, but it’d prob’ly give you what you’re after.”
“Good,” Keselo said. “Now why don’t you tell me what you mean when you say ‘skip-shot’?”
“It’s a notion we sorta stole from another ormy a while back, sir,” the sergeant replied. “Most always, catapults is used t’ fling boulders at folks y’ don’t like much. That there other ormy thunk it over a bit, an’ it sorta come t’ ’em that flangin’ a whole lot of smaller rocks at the ormy they didn’t like would most likely kill a lot more than jist the four or five as would git skwarshed by a great big boulder. We tried it out a few times back in our home fort in Kaldacin, an’ it done real good—or seemed to. We couldn’t tell fer certain sure that it’d work on people as well as it seemed t’ work on tree stumps. Then a young soljer as warn’t none too bright in the first place come up with the notion of flangin’ them small rocks at the ground right in front of the soljers we didn’t like. He tole us it might work the same as a flat rock skippin’ over water does. Well, we give it a try a couple times, an’ believe me, sir, you wouldn’t want t’ be anywhere near where them little rocks come a-skippin’ after they hit solid ground. Now, iff’n we was a-usin’ fire instead of pebbles, thangs would get purty awful in a hurry.”
“I think you just earned your pay for this whole month, Sergeant,” Keselo said with a broad grin.
“I’m almost positive that it’ll work, Commander,” Keselo declared in the customary meeting the following morning. “If we use that ‘skip-shot’ Sergeant Shwark described, we’ll scatter lumps of fire all over the downhill slope to the front of this breastwork.”
“It sounds like it might work, Narasan,” Padan said. “I’d say let’s give it a try. The bug-people might not pay very much attention to their friends if all they do is just fall over dead, but if somebody I knew suddenly caught on fire, it’d get my immediate attention.”
“And if it doesn’t work, we could go back to throwing big gobs of fire at them,” Gunda added. “I’ll go along with Padan this time. Let’s try some skip-shots and find out if they work like they’re supposed to.”
It was shortly after noon when the first bug-men tentatively came out of the second breastwork and started up the slope. It seemed to Keselo that their enemies had broken out in a rash of wariness. They’d encountered some very nasty surprises in the last few days so they had no idea of what might happen this time.
“It’s up t’ you, Subaltern,” Sergeant Shwark said, “but if’n it was me, I’d wait a bit. Let more enemies get out in the open afore we stort settin’ ’em on fire.”
“I shall be guided by you, Sergeant,” Keselo replied.
“I’m a-thankin’ that y’ might just have spent more time at that there school in Kaldacin than y’ really should have, Subaltern. Real people don’t hardly never talk so formal.”
“I know,” Keselo replied. “I’m hoping that it’ll wear off—eventually. Have you any idea at all of what we should expect, Sergeant?”
“Nope. As fur as I know, nobody’s ever tried it afore.”