The Komneniad: Romanoi Kush

I return to the WWII analogue; the fighting in Tibet and in Punjab generally was exceedingly slow.

August 23rd, 1943
Somewhere in the Himalayas
Early morning

“Sir!”

The young soldier saluted as he came to a halt from his rush, skidding slightly on the gravel. Kyrillos returned the salute, then said “Catch your breath, soldier; it won’t be any faster for having to be repeated.”

“Yes sir,” the courier gasped. “Message – from Centurion Feng.” He handed Kyrillos a paper slip, hastily scribbled-on by whatever soldier had been manning the cohort radio. Kyrillos sighed internally; the radio men were so impressed by the speed of reaction their apparatus made possible that they had trouble grasping that clarity was more important than the few additional seconds they could shave off. At least the message was short: “Bridge intact. Am across. Under attack in century strength. Request reinforcements.”

The bridge was intact? Kyrillos looked again at the slip, but the handwritten scrawl couldn’t be interrogated and the courier wouldn’t know any more than the message said. “Intact” could mean anything from undamaged to hanging by just enough rope for men to get across single file; but even the last would mean a vast saving in time. Kyrillos had been planning to start bridging today, and be across sometime during the week, depending on how much ammunition the Punjabi artillery had. He had sent Feng forward with a contubernium to reconnoitre mainly to see how much fire the engineers would come under, not in any expectation of them getting across the gorge. The Punjabi had been retreating through these mountains for a long time, and were getting very good at it – Moslem engineers, the joke went, better at blowing them up than building them; an intact bridge was rarer than a tender yak steak. If he could get across the gorge without a tedious bridging operation under Punjabi artillery – sure to be pre-sighted on just the places where his engineers would have to set up their equipment – he might gain days, a week even, not to mention the lives he wouldn’t lose. And Feng reported only century strength attacking him; hard odds for a twenty-five man contubernium, but not impossible for a defense of an hour or so. Someone had blundered, clearly; but, as one prayed for and as so rarely happened, someone on the other side.

Kyrillos had only been thinking for ten seconds or so; now he could feel the gears grinding in his head as he switched from thinking of breakfast and getting the engineers to the gorge sometime during the day, to full ask me for anything but time mode.

“Right,” he said to the courier. “Run to Fourth Century, they’re to form up, rifles and ammunition only, and march to the bridge.” Fourth was understrength, but so were they all; and it had the most aggressive centurion, a Komnenos who believed his own propaganda. As Kyrillos had, once. “Tell them they are to reinforce Feng at the bridge, and hold until relieved.” Those would be magic words for Herakles, straight from the comic books he’d grown up on. Just as Kyrillos had.

The courier ran, and Kyrillos took off in the opposite direction, for the radio tent. There would be other couriers on duty there, and he had other orders to give. He prioritised them in his mind as he ran. The cohort’s two wheezing trucks could carry the ready contubernium to the bridge, faster than Fourth could march; that would help. Then Second and Third centuries, with full loads, slower but they’d finish the fight. Then a radio to Legion for air support. Then the rest of the cohort, clerks and jerks and all; let him just get his guns, light as they were, to the gorge, not even across it, and no Punjabi conscripts were going to shift him.

August 23rd, 1943
Somewhere in the Himalayas
Midmorning

“Sir!”

Herakles came to attention and saluted in the best parade-ground manner, which was against regulations when under observation by the enemy, but that was the least of Kyrillos’s problems. Herakles looked half ashamed and half terrified as he reported. “Sir. I regret to report. The Fourth has not been able to complete its mission.”

Kyrillos nodded, deciding to return the salute and regulations be damned; if a sniper had spotted them the damage was done, and Herakles clearly needed the trappings of discipline at the moment. “I can see that, Centurion. It happens. The enemy also has a plan. In this case, apparently” – he gestured at the ton masses of rocks and earth that blocked the road – “a plan to draw a relief column into an ambush and blow down an avalanche on them. I thought that intact bridge was too good to be true. How much of your century is under that?”

Herakles nodded miserably; at least he no longer looked terrified. “Most of the third contubernium, sir. I’m, ah, not in reliable contact with the first, anymore; they’re on the other side.” He looked even more ashamed at having to admit that he wasn’t in full control of his unit. Kyrillos nodded briskly, trying to make it clear that he wasn’t seeking to attach blame; to lose a whole contubernium at once was a bit of a disaster, but after all it was Kyrillos’s order that had sent them force-marching up the road into ambush. “All right. What’s the status of the units you do have contact with?”

Herakles relaxed minutely. “Second contubernium is holding a perimeter in the woods on our right. First and second of fourth is out to our left keeping an eye out for Punjabi. Third of fourth, my headquarters squad, and what’s left of third contubernium, is here, getting ready to attack the hill so we can get around the landslide and get back in touch with first.”

“Very good,” Kyrillos said, and meant it. Losing a fourth of your unit was a nasty shock for any officer, all the more so when it was completely different from the fight you expected to have; but Herakles hadn’t frozen in place and yelled for help. He’d come up with a plan for getting his unit forward. Maybe not a very workable plan, but then, he didn’t have Kyrillos’s resources.

“Counterattack is good,” Kyrillos went on, “but not in contubernium strength, which is what you’ve got here. They’ll be ready for that; it’d be a slaughter. We’ll bring up the rest of the cohort and do it in style.”

“That’ll take forever!” Herakles suddenly remembered that he was a junior officer and one who had just led his unit into ambush, at that. “Sir. Um. With respect, what about Feng, at the bridge?”

“Yes, well, we can’t help him by losing the rest of the relief force. Anyway I sent him the ready contubernium; didn’t Molly and Jolly pass you on the way?” Those were the cohort’s two aging trucks; their establishment strength was five, but Golly was down with a fuel leak, Folly had been lost crossing the Mekong, and Dolly was under a landslide much like the one they were looking at.

“Yes sir. But he reported being under attack by century strength.”

“Sometimes you gotta triage,” Kyrillos quoted. “We can’t get to the bridge any faster by rushing into an uphill attack with inadequate forces.”

“Yes, sir.” Herakles’s jaw was clenched tight, but he nodded. He was young and idealistic, and Feng and he were friends, but in the end he was a Komnenos.

Komnenoi knew all about triage.

August 23rd, 1943
Somewhere in the Himalayas
Noon

“Sir!”

Feng, properly, did not salute. That was probably not because he was mindful of regulations about courtesy in the field; his right arm was in a sling improvised from someone’s uniform tunic, and his face was grey and shocky. His eyes were focused, though. “We’re pinned down; mortars and two machine guns, maybe a hundred rifles. But they haven’t pushed it. We have five dead, seven badly wounded, six fighting wounded.”

“Very good, Centurion.” Kyrillos was a little puzzled; it had taken them long enough to clear the path for the cohort to get here. Why hadn’t the Punjabi destroyed Feng’s detachment? Had they made an actual blunder this time? Complicated plans were like that, prone to going wrong. “The bridge,” he asked slowly. “Is it wired to blow?”

“It was, sir. I cut the wires myself.”

While under fire, presumably. Kyrillos’s experience allowed him to classify the sharp whine of bullets that spanged and sparked off the stone bridge as ‘desultory’, nowhere near the intense drumfire that a whole company of bolt-action rifles could put out if they put their minds to it; but his balls hadn’t got the message, and were well drawn up into his gut. He nodded in acknowledgement, frowning.

“And the explosives?”

“Still there. Can’t get at them without a rope harness.”

“Mm-hm.” Kyrillos thought about it. A bridge wired to blow, but not blown; a detachment vulnerable to defeat in detail, but not defeated. The enemy commander – he had to be someone new; there had been nothing like this in the past five weeks – seemed to have a penchant for tricksy stuff, feint, feint, off with your head. Feng had cut the wires, but had he got all the wires? Or might there be more than one way to blow the bridge?

“How many mortars have they got?”

“Two, sir. Both behind that hill. The machine guns are there and there, unless they’ve moved them. They’ve been quiet for a while.”

“Punjabi battalions usually have three mortars in their heavy-weapons company,” Kyrillos observed thoughtfully. Of course, there was such a thing as combat losses. Nevertheless… He looked beyond the fighting positions of Feng’s men, trying to see the patterns of craters. Maybe he was seeing what he expected to see, but it seemed to him that the mortar impacts were all some distance from the bridge, and that there were more of them on the further side of the Roman perimeter than on the near side. If the Punjabi gunners knew their business, the craters should be centered on top of the Romans. “I wonder what happens,” he said, “if a mortar round hits a metal bridge with a bunch of explosives attached to the supports? Especially if, say, half the cohort is across and the other half isn’t.”

Feng’s eyes widened, but he sucked air in doubtfully. “Tricky, sir. Very tricky. Wouldn’t like to rely on it.”

“Neither would I,” Kyrillos agreed. “Still, if you had, say, two extra companies that you were keeping up your sleeve, you might decide that you could at least try for half a cohort, instead of two contubernia. The other guy likes that sort of plan, apparently. And it’s worked for him once today. Suck in the scouts with an intact bridge, then ambush the relief column; cut that in half with a landslide, shoot up what’s left, get out of the way of the counterattack. Lost one-third of Fourth Century, there. Then when we get here, blood in our eyes and very glad to find you still alive, we bull over the bridge. Then he fires his pre-registered mortar, the one that hasn’t been shooting at you gentlemen, and blows up the bridge anyway.”

“It could work, sir,” Feng said doubtfully. “But if that pre-registered shot misses – or the explosives misfire – or you don’t go across…”

“Well, if I don’t go across he wins. As for a misfire, it could happen. But, what the hell, this country is full of gorges and bridges; if we take this one, there’ll be another. A new guy, out to make a name for himself – someone who likes complicated feint, feint stuff – he might think it was worth taking a chance on, if he could catch half a cohort in a trap. And besides, if he’s been keeping a company or two in reserve, while carefully showing us exactly one, it could get pretty nasty when they all open up at once, even if the bridge doesn’t go.”

“So – what are you going to do, sir?”

Kyrillos smiled nastily. “I shall draw on my Roman and Christian heritage, of course. To everything there is a season; and a time for every event under heaven. A time for peace, a time for war; a time for love, a time for hate. A time to be clever, and a time to say fuck it and use brute force and lots of it. I think my opposite number over there thinks this is some kind of duel, mano a mano. Me against him. Match wits over the chessboard. Send your knight over here to distract the enemy, while your queen sneaks in the checkmate on the other side. Feint, feint. Well, yeah, if it were my cohort against his battalion, sure; and he’s got me good. Smart guy. But in fact it’s the Roman Legions against the Punjabi tribal goatfuckers. And, unless I’m very much mistaken, my call to the Legion earlier this morning is about to bear fruit.”

He jerked his head northeast, the direction of the droning sound he’d been hearing for half a minute. Feng, half-deafened by hours of firefight, hadn’t noticed it, and now his eyes widened in surprise. “Air support!” he said wonderingly.

“Well, yes,” Kyrillos agreed. “There’s such a thing as civilised nations having an advantage over a coalition of tribes who have just about stopped stealing each others’ goats.”

The planes came rapidly nearer, a vee-of-vees formation, nine aircraft in all – Harpies, the two-engined ground-support bomber of the Aeroporia. Obsolete, perhaps, on the battlefields of Europe; but here in Tibet they were the only thing that flew, unless you counted the hot-air balloons some of the tribes used to watch their yaks. And there was a much greater difference between having aircraft actually in the air, right now, and not having any, than between the Harpy and the very latest from the workshops of the Rhine.

Kyrillos ran back to where Second Century was waiting. “Just as we planned it,” he said, and Timur nodded. “Yes, sir.” His army Greek was accented, heavy on the Mongol fricatives, but clear enough as he recited back what he was to do. “We run across when the bombs start, and don’t stop until we’re up the ridge and among them.”

“Right. Nine Harpies can drop thirty-six tons of high explosive. I think the Punjabi will have other things to worry about than shooting at us.”

“Yes, sir.” Timur licked his lips, the one sign of nervousness in his impassive high-cheekboned face, then looked at the aircraft again. “Time to go, I think.” He raised his voice, waving his arm in a forward-that-away gesture. “Now! Forward! Charge!” He leaped at the bridge, head down like a man intending to knock down a stone wall by sheer willpower, and his men followed.

The Punjabi were neither asleep nor idiots; the slow firing from the ridge suddenly picked up, a machine gun joining the rifles, and then another. Men fell on the bridge, and Kyrillos bit his lip. Had Timur miscalculated? Then the first bombs hit, and the ridge was blanketed in dust and flame. One of the machine guns stopped short; the stream of bullets from the other suddenly went wild, far over the bridge. Kyrillos grinned in triumph and ran down the road for Third Century. “Go, go!” he shouted, gesturing at the bridge, and they went, screaming. He could barely hear them over the roar from the ridge. Let’s see their pre-registration survive that, he thought savagely. The dust cloud from behind the hill reached a hundred feet in the air, and Timur’s men were halfway up it – and the Harpies were coming around again for another run. Kyrillos watched in some concern. It would be galling to take casualties from friendly fire, after all the trouble of getting bombers and infantry here at the same time – the enemy was pretty well suppressed already – better to lose a few men to overenthusiastic fire support than to be too cautious, if it came to the pinch – no, it wasn’t going to be a problem, the bombers were loosing their next inferno on the hill on the other side of the road, from which there had been no firing. Probably they had seen something he hadn’t – perhaps the postulated reserve company that the enemy had been hiding. So much the better to have them suppressed, if that was the case.

The aircraft came over the hill almost straight towards him, waggling their wings, and Kyrillos waved back; they were very low, no more than a few hundred feet up, low enough that he could make out the bird-of-prey motifs painted onto their noses. A last, tardy bomb broke free from one of them, tumbling lazily in the blue air – a mechanical jam finally cleared, perhaps? It was going to be much too late to hit anything remotely Punjabi. Kyrillos felt a sick, sinking sensation in his stomach, and reminded himself that the whole of Athena Squadron had been known to target bridges for weeks on end without hitting them. Murphy was strong, but not that strong; a single bomb dislodged at random couldn’t possibly – but even as he tried to think it, the bomb fell with unerring, malignant accuracy, straight for the bridge that his cohort had just taken. The bridge that was still full of explosives, even though the wires had been cut. Kyrillos watched with utter unbelief as it struck – and didn’t explode. Ye gods, had it been a dud? His heart leapt for joy, and he took a breath to shout. Then the bomb went off, and the bridge blew with a noise that impressed even his half-deafened ears.

For a long, long moment Kyrillos just stood there, unable to believe his luck. He’d managed to get air support, and they’d prevented the enemy from using a pre-registered mortar to blow the bridge. And then one of his own side’s aircraft had bombed it! The same damn aircraft that had tried for three weeks to knock out the Qamdo Military Bridge, and failed. They had blown his bridge with a single bomb! Greek, Chinese, and Korean failed him alike; he could find no words for what he felt.

After a minute, he turned away and trudged up the road. There were still engineers attached to his cohort. They’d be across the gorge by midnight.

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