Lewis and his non-coms watched Prince Raimond and his entourage ride down the cratered road toward the valley.
“Christ, Evans, I don’t even know where to begin.” Lewis rubbed his eyes wearily. “If what the Prince said is true, the last time they were here was what, 900 years ago? Things have changed around here in the last little while. Hell, they thought France was still a kingdom. Their intelligence is a bit stale.”
“France isn’t a kingdom?” Evans cracked.
“Not for a while, now, no.” Lewis replied with a tight smile.
Lewis continued, “First things. The threat board is clear, thanks to our new friends. I want to be on the road early tomorrow morning. I’m not sure how quickly Prince Raimond can get his people moving, but we will be ready. Evans. You take charge of the packing. Ditch the trucks that have been giving us trouble. Load the essentials: ammunition, water, food; in that order. And detail someone to strip armor and weapons from the goblins on the road and wall. I want more of us in that armor, and we *have* to get some of this back to higher.
“Inquiring minds will want to know how all this…” He set his hand on his sword, “Works.”
Lewis looked up the road. “Oh, and get with Doc and see what he needs for the wounded and the goblin.”
“Arp, take one of the pickups and scout down the road west. If you lose radio contact, hold up. We can’t afford to get scattered to the winds. Dismissed. Angelo, Coleman, stay. I need a word.”
Private Haulk stepped into the dining room. “Sir, the Sergeant’s coming back up the road.”
“Thank you, private. I’ll be out directly.”
The sun was westering as Lewis exited the restaurant. The wind was picking up again and the temperature was dropping a bit. He strode down the village’s single forlorn street toward the barricade where the road met the town, such as it was. His men were busy, packing and loading. The Marines had cleared a path through their impromptu wall, and Pethoukis and his detail drove their Humvees through the narrow gap.
Pethoukis hung out the passenger side of the lead Humvee and dropped to the ground as the small column pulled to a stop. Each of the six was loaded to the gills.
“Sir, what’s the regulations on war booty? Because I’ve got a metric shitload of it.”
Pethoukis’ detail began unloading the Humvees, stacking burlap sacks in the open area in front of the gas station. Pethoukis walked over to a sack and pulled it open. “Captain, we’ve got armor and weapons for everyone. The Prince insisted on loading us down, and I wasn’t gonna argue.”
“And there’s a ton more down at the camp. Food, random supplies, more armor and weapons. And gold.” Pethoukis grinned.
He reached into the bag and started pulling out armor pieces. “Gamez translated for the other monk who spoke Arabic, Father Isadore. Another group of crusaders came up as we got down there; the baggage train and support staff. We counted about 400 or so. Lots of them were worker bees; servants, I guess. But there were more church types and another small bunch armed like the knights. Father Isadore said they were Temple Guards, knights of the Church.”
“Knights Templar?” Lewis asked.
“Not sure if they’re the same bunch. Might could be.”
“The Prince had us hauling the booty back for sorting. We must have hauled a hundred loads of armor back from the first battlefield. You can see the pile from here.” Pethoukis waved at a still growing mound of gear stripped from the goblins down in the valley outside the north camp.
“Some of the church types, the ones in the fancy red robes, they started into sorting it all out. When the Prince got back down he had them put the good stuff in a pile for us.”
Pethoukis looked through the rapidly growing pile of bags, and pulled one out marked with a large red cross. “This one, sir, the Prince said was special for you.”
Pethoukis opened up the sack and started pulling out armor. It didn’t look like goblin armor. The armor wasn’t gold like the Prince’s, but it had the same style. Lewis picked up the breastplate. The silvery metal surface was finely engraved. Lewis had never seen anything like it. The lines were hair-thin and densely packed; a topo map of staggeringly baroque mountain. They didn’t form pictures, but there were subtle patterns. It could look like most anything if you looked at it long enough, he thought. It was beautiful.
“The Prince’s sideboy, Baron Siegfried, said we’ll have a party of armorers up in a little bit to help fit the armor. We were lucky, apparently, when we hacked up the armor for the five of us. I couldn’t follow most of what he said, but it seems if you’re not careful you can poke a hole and all the magic runs out.”
“Very well.” Lewis pointed at the armor suit. “Leave that until the armorers get here, I’ll deal with it then.”
“Walk with me.” Lewis aimed toward the restaurant, and Pethoukis fell in beside him.
“Tell me what you saw.”
“Sir. They’re well-organized. Not sharp and properly squared away, but smooth. A bit of mess around the edges, but there’s no confusion. They set up their camp quick and no fuss. Their working parties were efficient. On the military side, the average soldiers were pitching in with no more than normal grousing.”
“Father Isadore wasn’t shy about answering our questions. He asked a lot of his own, too. The men who were working with us were pretty obviously fascinated with us but they minded their manners, mostly. Captain, I gotta say that these crusaders seem decent enough. You’ve seen the difference between working with the Arabs and the Kurds; and how different either of them are from the Germans. They feel a lot closer to the Germans, if you follow.”
“Anyway, the Father said the military arm of the embassy is fifty lances. Ten men to a lance, led by a knight with a squire and the rest regular soldiers. I got the impression that this little army is a little more gunned up than usual for them.”
“You’d expect that, I guess, with a Crown Prince and a mission to another world. You go loaded for bear,” Lewis commented.
Pethoukis nodded agreement. “And sir, I’m not kidding about the loot. The knights are building a godawful big pile of shit they’ve stripped from the goblins and their camp, sir. There were maybe 1500 left after they hit us, and the knights did for most of them. I doubt more than fifty got away north. And the Prince wants for you to have your share of it. It’s the way they do it, the Father said; the Captain gets the biggest share. There’s food, stores, and gold, sir. A lot of gold.”
“I don’t think the Commandant would approve of me taking a personal share, Michael. I don’t know how we’re going to play this. I don’t even know what the rules are for this sort of thing. It’s not like we’re normally in a position where the enemy’s kit is better than what Uncle Sam gives us.” Lewis paused.
“When the armorers get here, start filing the men through to get fitted. We’ll call it, what? ‘A special issue of equipment.’ We’ll load whatever we can of the rest on the trucks and pass it on up the chain. We need that gear, and we need it badly. But we – the United States, I mean – also need to figure out how this stuff works.” Lewis stopped in the middle of the street and turned to Pethoukis.
“Pethoukis, I can and will rationalize taking weapons and armor. We need them. Supplies, I don’t think we’d have any issues with. But I don’t think I can possibly justify accepting gold and treasure from a foreign Prince.”
Pethoukis looked concerned. “Captain, from what I’m seeing, if you turn it down, you’re going to offend the Prince. Touching on his honor, and all that. And besides, technically we’re taking it from dead goblins.”
“We’ll worry about that later. We’re leaving tomorrow morning. I’ve got Evans seeing to the packing. Check in on him, the wounded need to be prepped for transport. If we need to ditch anything to make room for the armor and weapons, do it. Cut out all the vehicles that aren’t ready for a long haul, and move their cargo to the ones that are. And all this needs to happen yesterday.”
“I want everyone ready to go by sunrise, and I don’t care how much sleep we get in the meantime. We can rack out en route.”
Morning came slowly. Grey light sullenly lit the streets where some of the locals had come back, but mostly they seemed to have taken his advice and headed for the hills. His Marines still worked, loading the last of their gear and supplies; or cleaning and maintaining their weapons. Many of their vehicles, the ones already loaded, were already parked, fueled and waiting alongside the road to the west of the village.
Over the parapet of his wall, Lewis looked down into the shallow valley below. The light was just reaching it, spreading fingers down into the dusty hollows of the plain. The crusaders hadn’t been slacking either. Half their column was up, mounted and making their way up the road to the village. Small troops of riders were scouting, patrolling to the east and north while the baggage train finished loading.
Prince Raimond was in the van, in his golden armor. With him were Strategos Odo, Siegfried and some other knights. Their translators, Father Pietr and Burhan were there, too, along with Archimandrite John. The rest of the clergy must be back with the other non-combatants.
Lewis jumped down from the wall. He’d actually gotten something like an actual night’s rest. He felt very nearly human. The packing hadn’t been too laborious, seeing as they’d left Ramadi without most of their gear, and expended most of their stores over the last week.
“Prince Raimond! Good morning!” The Prince looked over, and said a word to the Strategos, who nodded. The Prince rode his horse out of column and dismounted. Father Pietr and Burhan followed. The Prince didn’t wait for the translation, clearly he’d divined Lewis’ meaning.
“A fine morning it is, Thomas, and welcome.” The Prince’s response, of course, filtered through the monk and the Iraqi.
The column, led by Strategos Odo, moved smartly through the village. At the head of each Lance was a knight, and on his right his squire or bannerman. Behind rode the men at arms of the lance, in three rows of three.
The Prince accompanied Lewis on the short walk to the west end of the village. Already, the Prince’s troops were forming up off the left side of the road in well-dressed ranks. After the military moved through, the baggage train followed, albeit more slowly.
Where the cavalry had been organized, the baggage train was if not exactly disorganized, not moving with a single purpose. There were very few wagons or carts. Most of the embassy’s supplies were stored in panniers secured to the back of the horses. Less worry about broken wagon wheels, that way, Lewis supposed.
As Lewis watched, the churchmen were passing by. The priests and high church officials wore their colorful vestments, and their horses were richly accoutered to match. They were followed by more drably and sensibly attired monks and servants. The men shouted at each other and their horses. Two servants broke into laughter, and received an admonishing look from a stern-looking monk. A fine adventure, for them. Lewis suppressed a twinge of anger. His men had been through fire. It wasn’t all high spirits and boyish pranks.
But it wasn’t their fault. He shook his head and looked over to the Prince. “Your Highness, we’re ready on our end. Scouts are out down the road; it’s clear for at least the next 15 miles. Your men are scouting those low hills to the north. We don’t expect trouble from the south, but I sent a team to parallel our route just to be sure.”
“Most of my Marines will be up front, combat loaded in the Humvees. My wounded and a small detachment will be in the trucks at the head of your baggage along with the supplies. As we agreed?”
The Prince nodded. “Oc.” Lewis had figured out the word for yes, at least. Through his translators, the Prince asked, “Did you receive my gift?”
“I did, your highness,” Lewis replied. “And I’ll be wearing it as soon as all my men are in armor.”
The Prince looked at the Captain. “How many did you lose, along the way?”
The Prince jumped to his saddle. His expression became serious. He looked down at Lewis and said, “You care for your men, and that is good. But have a care for yourself. Without you, they are nothing. My armorers will fit it for you this evening as soon as we make camp.”
The Prince smiled again. “And before the end of the day, I should like a ride in your ‘Humvee.’” Lewis felt an odd, auditory double-take as he heard the prince say the word ‘Humvee’ in an impossibly thick accent, and then have the word echoed by Burhan a second later.
“Excellent! Until then, Thomas.” The Prince wheeled his horse and reared, before dropping and galloping over to his strategos. Commands echoed down the ranks as the crusaders shifted in place and prepared to move.
Lewis walked over to Pethoukis and his waiting Humvee. “He’s got a way about him, sir, doesn’t he?” Pethoukis said.
“That he does, First Sergeant, that he does. Let’s get us up front, shall we?” Pethoukis floored the accelerator, raising a rooster tail of dust from the loose shoulder of the road. The back wheels shifted a bit as they went up onto the road. The roar of the engine startled the horses as they sped away, sending shivers down the neat ranks
“Bet they don’t see that every day, sir.”
The Prince was riding with Lewis again. Since that morning, he’d spent half his time on horseback, and the rest in the Humvee trying to get Pethoukis to drive faster. The Prince stood in the open back of the Humvee, one hand resting on the roll bar and holding himself with an easy grace.
“Achilles himself would have envied me this chariot!” Burhan didn’t look too terribly unhappy, translating from his spot in the corner of the rear bed. But father Pietr was clearly miserable. He’d puked once over the side already.
Raimond had a smile a mile wide as he surveyed the terrain ahead. The land, which had been mostly open and flat since they’d left the village, was closing up. Not hilly, but rougher.
Arp yelled back from the front passenger seat, “Five klicks, captain.”
We’re almost to the border. Lewis was frankly amazed at the pace the crusaders had maintained. He’d thought there’d been a misunderstanding, some sort of translation error when the Prince had insisted that his men could cover the 100 miles to the border in a single day. Granted, that was maybe two hours or less in a car on an interstate back home. But horses?
Yet there they were, still behind. Ten miles an hour didn’t seem fast to a civilian, but for a large group of people the same rules didn’t apply. He remembered explaining once to his aunt just how difficult it was to get a hundred Marines moving in the same direction at the same time. He’d asked her to imagine getting her entire congregation to show up at the church at the same time, and then drive – all together – from Columbus to Cleveland, without losing anyone.
She’d said, “Impossible.” On horseback, it should be. They rode for 55 minutes of every hour, five-minute break and back up again. Twenty minutes for lunch, and here we were, 11 hours later. Magic, again.
The Prince pointed ahead. “Your scouts return.”
Pethoukis slowed to a stop, and the column ground to a halt behind. The scout hummer slewed to a stop on the verge, and Evans ran over.
“Captain, there might be some trouble ahead,” Evans said.
“Fucking goblins? They couldn’t have gotten ahead of us again!” Pethoukis shouted.
“No, worse. Saudis.”
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Continue on to Chapter Thirteen.