Chapter One – Riot
Major Gisel Matah, military governor of the city of Skrona in liberated Tarnland, stepped onto the concourse at the top of the Town Hall steps as the mob reached the Great Square. Her four Iskander security guards fanned out around them as the two officers accompanying her scanned the approaching crowd.
“You were right, Major.” Captain Jans commanded the cavalry of the garrison, the same 3rd Light Cavalry she’d led in the last campaign the previous year. “The demonstration has turned into trouble, but my troopers are ready.”
Gisel studied the crowd a moment, all displaced Lubitz settlers. They had genuine grievances, but she wasn’t about to let them bring their anger into the streets. The mob streamed down the three major arteries into the square from Hagriche Park where their leaders had inflamed them with speeches. The words they shouted were incomprehensible but raised fists and brandished iron bars and pick helves told her everything she needed to know.
“Return to your squadrons, Captain Jans. Seal off all the exits from the square once the mob is inside. Leave the main avenue to the naval docks open. Keep your sabres sheathed unless I order otherwise. Your officers will herd the protestors south against the dockyard walls.”
“Yes, Major, but I will leave you a half troop here to support your Peace Officers.”
She turned her head to fix him with a fierce stare. Her men had started bending her orders of late – something they’d not presumed to do with her instructions before. Almost in the last month of her pregnancy, they treated her as a delicate flower instead of the fierce Wildcat. She scowled and shook her head. “I may waddle like a goddamned duck, but I can still shoot straight.”
Jans grinned and saluted.
As he turned away she softened her tone. “I appreciate your consideration, Captain; a section will do. My husband will be grateful for your care of me while he’s away.” Yohan bitterly railed at her commanders, who refused to allow her maternity leave, but clearly they did not want the pregnancy to diminish her Wildcat persona. Ha! Thanks, guys.
The Lieutenant of the Peace Officers, once a sergeant of the town militia, regarded her expectantly. “My men are in the street behind the building, Governor. What are your orders?”
Gisel eyed the crowd that streamed into the square. Mostly men, but she could see women and a few children running between the groups of ruffians. “Form your men into a single line across the concourse, about fifty paces from the bottom of the steps. Hold firm to keep the mob from reaching the building.”
He licked his lips. “Yes Governor . . .. There are . . . a lot of them.”
“I see that, but I have backup for you.” She scanned around the tiled rooftops of the tall buildings opposite, looking for visible heads. “My riflemen are waiting on the far side of the roofs for my order to move forward. You understand that I do not want to have them open fire, but if your men are threatened I will so order them.”
“Thank you, Governor.” He threw a loose salute, pivoted about, and marched away.
She had selected his detachment recruited from the Lubitz citizens to keep order against their countrymen. The Tarnlish Peace Officers were patrolling the rest of the city. The genocidal dissension between the two groups wasn’t new – it had been ongoing ever since Iskander captured the city five years before. Forty percent of the inhabitants were from Lubitz and they disputed the inevitability of returning Skrona to the Tarnlish crown.
Their anger had caused this riot. A group of Lubitz citizens had accepted an offer to travel to new lands outside Tarnland where they would build new homes. It was a good deal for the new settlers, but their fellows remaining behind demonstrated against reducing their numbers and power.
She was as much a target of the anger as her fellows. Her first successful undercover mission had opened the main gate to let Lord Ricart’s Iskander cavalry columns take the city. Since the stranding of the starship Iskander on Gaia seven years before, their technology had revolutionized the 17th century world. But the changes that had improved the lives of many had diminished the power of others. Those who had lost, hated them.
Everyone assumed her governorship had been a reward for her early success. She knew better – it was no reward – the position she held required her to take actions she hated. She believed any action ethical when defending herself, but keeping order over an unruly populace narrowed her options to a knife edge. Tarnland’s rulers expected her to seize these ringleaders and hang them – but she wouldn’t. Neither would she let loose the cavalry sabres to cut down rioting citizens – unless she had no option left.
A movement to her right made her turn her head. The Peace Officers in full riot gear marched into the square in single file. She caught the Lieutenant’s eye and clapped her hands together. He turned to march backwards as he gave an order. The men raised their riot shields and clapped their riot sticks against them in a loud cadence to their marching steps.
The ominous sound echoed across the square as the men marched into position. Most of the oncoming crowd slowed but some picked up rocks to throw. The Peace Officers pulled down their face shields and turned to face the crowd. They locked their shields into a continuous wall and braced themselves against the expected onslaught.
Gisel turned to gesture to one of her orderlies in the doorway. “Bring me a loudhailer.”
The clatter of hooves heralded the arrival of a dozen cavalrymen. She smiled as she recognised the leader – Sergeant Major Cubbins, one of her most reliable men of the 3rd Light Cavalry the previous year. He now commanded the new D Squadron as Iskander built up the battle-scarred battalion to full strength.
Those in the mob who had resumed running forward slowed to a walk at the arrival of the cavalry. With their eyes on the horsemen, they edged across the square to about twenty metres from the riot police – throwing stones at them. Behind the first ranks of the mob she recognised Nakred the rabble-rouser and Davadis the hot-headed reporter for the Skrona-Lubitz News – a fledgling free press that Iskander had encouraged. Gisel ruefully acknowledged the paper she allowed to operate fanned the flames of the Lubitz citizens’ resentment.
Her orderly reached her with the loudhailer and she switched it on to put to her lips. She gulped a deep breath, not quite full with her babe pressed up against her diaphragm. “Pavel Nakred,” she boomed, “permission to hold this gathering is rescinded. Disperse these people at once.”
“Not until you have heard our grievances,” he shouted back.
“Order your people to cease throwing stones.”
“Their anger is too strong for me to so speak. You may shout with your huge voice machine.”
Gisel signalled to the sergeant of the Assault Infantry Company, near the door behind her. In a moment, the riflemen climbed over the roofs to take up positions where they could shoot down into the crowd. She fixed her gaze on Nakred. “Order your people to disperse before I quench their anger with rifle bullets.”
Nakred and his companions turned to stare up at the surrounding riflemen. After a minute’s argument he faced her again. “I don’t believe you will do it.”
A movement beside him revealed one of his bodyguards carrying a firearm – possibly a cavalry carbine. He seemed ready to aim at her. Fear for her unborn child lanced through her.
She covered her belly with both arms as she turned to the sergeant. “Your sharpshooter. Quick!”
He shouted into his radio and a shot rang out from a window above them in the building . The armed man threw up his hands and collapsed with a shriek.
Her heart pounded in her breast and she felt sweat break out all over her forehead and down to her shoulders. She had thrown down her biggest trump – would he call her bluff? “There’s one. Do you want to see a hundred fall? A thousand? I have killed that many on the battlefield – I can do it more easily here.”
Those at the rear of the mob shouted. At first she thought they wanted to know who had fired, but the sounds turned to cries of alarm. Gisel could see into several of the thoroughfares from her vantage point. The cavalry appeared in the distance, horses shoulder to shoulder. Good for Jans – he had judged his moment to a tee.
All around Nakred and Davadis the mob milled about, bending toward the fallen man and gesticulating. No doubt they shouted to one another, but their voices were lost in the din of the mob. Nakred emerged from the milling crowd, his voice indistinct. “You . . . killed . . . cousin. I accuse . . . cold-blooded murder.”
“Order your people to disperse or there will be more. Do you see the cavalry advancing down the avenues? I have only to give the order for them to break into a charge.”
“Never!” He stepped out of the mob, arms on hips. “Shoot me down, you bitch. I will not move from here.”
Gisel caught Sergeant Major Cubbin’s eye. The old soldier’s face looked grey but he nodded his head toward the riot police, now standing motionless and unengaged.
She caught his meaning – a good idea. “Lieutenant!” she said in a lower voice. “Take six of the riot squad forward and seize that man. Arrow formation. Sgt Major, take your horses in support.”
This had to work. If the mob resisted the police advance she’d have no choice but to order the riflemen to fire. Her pulse pounded like a jackhammer. It all depended on the execution – her men must act before the crowd realised what they were doing.
She needed to hold the crowd’s attention. She raised the loudhailer again. “Pavel Nakred, if you want to discuss your settlers’ grievances, I am willing to listen. But this square must be cleared first. Send the people to the Autarch’s Avenue and leave by way of the dockyard wall.”
“No! You will not intimidate us. Your Wildcat trick is -”
His words dried up as the wedge of riot police charged him. He attempted to dodge back to his escort but the two flanking columns of cavalry horses pushed the dense mass of rioters closed. The riot squad seized him and frog-marched him away, even as his protective escort reacted. These men were armed, Gisel could see several muskets and at least one more stolen Iskander firearm. Their attempts at rescue were beaten back by the sabres of Cubbins’ men. Three of the rioters fell before the rest fled into the crowd.
Gisel watched the mob mill about, some running forward, some back. At this point she expected anything. They could rush forward to attempt a rescue or they could break and flee in terror. The riot squad did exactly the right thing – testimony to the painstaking effort she’d put into their training. They marched forward again, beating their riot sticks against their shields, closing their ranks around the withdrawing men and their prisoner.
Gisel raised the volume on the loudhailer. “Your ringleader has agreed for you to disperse,” she boomed. “Leave the square. Go down Autarch’s Avenue to the dockyard walls. Go quickly and I will hold the cavalry back. All of your grievances will be heard. I give you my word.”
The mob wavered, their voices loud and shrill. Davadis stood firm, shouting at her but drowned out by the din.
“Oddr Davadis,” Gisel boomed again. “Your chance has failed. Do not lead more of these innocents to their destruction. The demonstrators are dispersing – their protest has been heard. Go in peace.”
She found herself holding her breath as she watched. The Sgt. Major’s small cavalry force regrouped against the front rank of the mob. No one attempted to rush forward to pull them from their mounts. That in itself said the nerve of the rioters had been broken. As the cavalrymen urged their horses slowly against them the mob fell back, sweeping Davadis and the remaining ruffians away with them.
The crowd changed from a pattern of angry faces to their retreating backs. Women rushed to grab up their children; men hastened to shield their wives. Gisel let out a long breath. Her hands trembled, but this time she’d won. Governorship as a reward? Hell no, it was torture.