“Did he just say, ‘Take me to your leader’?” Corporal Arp asked.
“Secure that shit!” 1st Sgt. Pethoukis growled, softly.
Captain Lewis stepped forward and rendered a crisp salute. The wind from behind him started up some tiny dust devils on the road. Before him, he watched nineteen refugees from a big-budget Hollywood production and one slight, bedraggled Iraqi watch him intently. The faces of the knights, especially the big guy in the golden armor, were open, friendly. The priests and monks maybe less so, but certainly not unfriendly.
The Iraqi looked angry. But he looked like he was the kind that was always angry.
Prince Raimond looked on expectantly.
“Tell him I am Captain Thomas Lewis, of the United States Marine Corps.” There was some back and forth as the Iraqi explained things in Arabic to one of the monks, who translated that for the Prince.
The golden-armored knight rattled off some more of the French-sounding language, which again bounced from the monk to the Arab to Lewis.
“With the Prince are Odo, Duke Polinhac, Strategos.” The Iraqi translator pointed at the knight to the left of the Prince. An older man, grey in his beard, craggy face and rather grim looking behind his smile of greeting. The Iraqi gestured at the other knight, a younger man handsome and blond, “And Siegfried, Baron Vischennes and aide to the Prince.”
Behind the three knights, the two monks were Abbot-Bishop Thibaud and Priestmonk Pietr of the Order of St. Johanet. The Abbot was in his sixties, perhaps; kindly in appearance with a long beard still mostly auburn though streaked with grey. The younger monk, Pietr, was clean shaven, tonsured, with black hair and an open face.
The two priest-looking individuals were Archpriest Isadore and Archimandrite John. Both had long beards, like the priests Lewis remembered from Russia. They were of the same age, he guessed, about forty. They looked similar, too, with the same aquiline noses and blue eyes. Isadore had rich vestments with crosses embroidered in the fabric in a complicated, repeating pattern – like a floor done up in gold and green cruciform tiles. John’s vestments were not so rich, and colored in a dark burgundy with rather less gold. His vestments also had a cross pattern, but a different one with more complicated crosses. Looking at it too long started his eyes to hurting; it was much like looking at one of those computer fractal pictures.
The Arab pointed at himself, and smiled sourly. “And I am Burhan Mohammed Madhour”
The other knights didn’t seem to merit an introduction. Well, there seems to be a protocol here, Lewis thought. Lewis gestured at Pethoukis. “With me are my second in command, First Sergeant Michael Pethoukis, and Corporals Evans and Arp.”
The Arab began again. This must be a canned speech as there wasn’t the same backing and filling as before.
“Captain Lewis, the Prince greets you and says, ‘For four centuries, the veil between worlds was closed. For centuries before that it was an inconstant and treacherous door’” the Arab paused. “‘Or gate.’ He concentrated.
“The Prince says, ‘Now that the veil is open once more those who fear God are in danger. Danger from the likes of those we fought this morning. Danger from greater and more powerful evils. I have been sent by my royal father to seek alliance with those we left behind; to offer aid and assistance and to ask the same. We looked to find the Kingdom of France, or England – but we are told’” the Arab interjected, “I told him.” He continued the translation, “That these are no longer or shadows of former greatness.”
“This man who speaks my words tells me that your United States is born of England and now the most powerful kingdom below Heaven. We wish to treat with your King.”
Holy crap, Lewis thought, I’m no ambassador. The Prince looked at him patiently. Well, here goes….
“Tell the Prince I am just a captain in my nation’s armed forces. I can’t negotiate treaties. I would be happy to take him to see the President. The only problem is that the President is on the other side of the planet and we’re in the middle of an invasion. And there’s God knows how many goblins between us and any way out.”
Lewis looked more closely at the knight. His armor was splendid. The lines of the armor were elegant and even though Lewis knew next to nothing about medieval armor, it had clearly been crafted by a master. Lewis was sure, though, that this wasn’t show armor. There were battle scars on that armor, and it had the look of long use. There were bloodstains on the prince’s surcoat – although likely not his own blood, seeing what happened that morning. The Prince was relaxed and at ease, in control.
The other knights had the same air of lethal competence. Normally, Lewis and his Marines habitually showed the same demeanor. But they had been rocked by events that for them had no precedent and they were reeling still from their unlikely salvation. It was obvious that these events did have precedent for this bunch.
Lewis tried to find solid ground. “I think that we’ll be needing friends just about now.” He told the Arab translator. “Tell the Prince, I’ll take him to the gulf where he can meet with my superiors. Or die trying.”
The message filtered its way to the Prince. The Prince nodded, and then smiled. Broad grins broke out on most of the Prince’s company. Hit a chord there, thought Lewis.
The Prince stepped forward and held out his hand. Lewis held out his automatically, and the Prince grasped his forearm and pulled him forward. Lewis felt a mighty clap on his shoulder. Christ, this guy is strong, he thought. The Prince released him and spoke.
“The Prince says, ‘Valiantly said. And an excellent beginning. We will be good friends, I trust. But there is much to be done, and much to be discussed. We must give thanks to God for our victory. The spoils of war must be divided. We must plan. And we must eat!’” The Prince looked around the small, dusty hamlet and the rude fortifications the Marines had erected.
“There is not much room here, I think. We will make use of the enemy’s encampment. Join us there.” The Prince had the command voice, no question.
Lewis paused. This guy seemed friendly. Hell, he was a dream come true. But still…. “Tell the Prince, ‘Thank you’ for the offer. But we must stay here in the village for now. We have wounded to attend to, and they would not be helped by moving.”
The Prince looked very mildly annoyed; but both of the other fancy knights, Lewis noted, nodded sagely.
“Perhaps the Prince and his companions could join us for lunch, and we can continue our discussion?” Lewis suggested.
The Prince smiled again, and nodded. He turned and rattled off a series of commands to the Baron, his aide-de-camp.
“Captain Lewis, if you would be so kind as to send a dozen or so of your men down to the valley with beasts of burden, we may share the spoils of battle. Our presence here in this world can not have gone undetected, and we will have to move quickly.”
“Very well, your Highness. Are there any more Arabic speakers with you? One of my men speaks Arabic, and he could translate.” Our other Arabic speaker died on the wall this morning, Lewis thought.
“Yes, captain, there are others.” He turned and rattled off more instructions to the Baron.
Lewis turned to his First Sergeant. “Pethoukis, you lead the detail. Use the humvees, I don’t think anything else will make it down the road since we unpaved it. Take Gamez, he speaks Arabic. Make nice, do anything they ask as long as it’s reasonable. Then come back here as quick as you can. And obviously, keep your eyes and ears open.”
The Marines’ ad-hoc motor pool was at the gas station just inside the improvised defenses. Some of Lewis’ men were there, cleaning weapons and doing maintenance. Pethoukis started shouting out names, quickly collecting a dozen Marines and chivvying them into a half dozen of their up-armored humvees.
“Prince Raimond?” Lewis said. “My men are ready.”
The Prince looked on curiously at the humvees. “These are military vehicles, captain?”
“Yes, your Highness, they…”
“Captain Lewis, pardon my interruption. But we are in the field. I am just a captain myself here, of a small company. You must call me ‘Prince,’ or even ‘Raimond.’ If you cannot restrain yourself, you may address me as ‘Sir.’ May I call you Thomas?” The Prince smiled his warm smile again.
“Uh, certainly, your Highness. I mean, ‘Prince.’ I have to admit, I am not in the habit dealing with princes. My country is a republic and we have no aristocracy, no royalty. And even if we did I wouldn’t be in their company.”
The prince laid an armored hand on Lewis’ shoulder. “Thomas, you sell yourself short, I am sure. I know that in my kingdom, a man such as you would not linger long in obscurity.”
“Aah, thank you, Prince Raimond.” Damn, Lewis thought, he’s got charisma out the ass. “But yes, these are military vehicles. They are lightly armored, for defense against small weapons fire and IEDs.”
“The locals have a habit of burying explosives in the roads.”
“I see. I take it that if you call these lightly armored, you must have heavy armored vehicles?”
He’s not slow, Lewis thought. “Yes, we have heavy armored vehicles, tanks and Strykers. They also carry heavier weapons.”
The Prince nodded thoughtfully, then spoke a few last orders to the young baron, who leapt back into the saddle, and called to two of the armored horsemen to accompany him down the road back into the valley.
The two fell in line behind Siegfried, who rode off toward the gate. Pethoukis pulled the lead humvee in behind, startling the horses a bit, who clearly weren’t used to the sound and appearance of internal combustion vehicles.
Lewis watched the three horseman lead six humvees down into the valley, weaving left and right to avoid the worst of the craters littering the roadway. The horses had an easier time of it, Lewis thought. The humvees were wide bitches, but at least they had a high ground clearance.
The Prince said to Lewis, through the translators, “An odd procession, do you agree?”
“I have instructed the Baron to tell my compatriots that all is well, and to continue on without us. He will find another of Father Pietr’s order who can translate for your men. I think they can manage without us for at least a little while, no? Now, Thomas, where shall we adjourn and break our fast?”
Lewis said, “Sir, this village isn’t much, but there’s a small coffee house we can use. I’ve been using it as my headquarters. Your men can either wait here and eat with my Marines.”
“Excellent, Thomas,” The Prince said. He turned and spoke to his remaining guard. Four of the soldiers took charge of the horses, leading them over to the wall. The rest stood at ease, waiting.
Lewis turned to Corporal Arp. “Arp, see to the Prince’s men. Get them food and water, settle them in until we’re finished.” He looked over at the men with the horses, and added, “And more water for the horses.”
Arp waved at the Prince’s guard to follow him, and they fell in behind. The corporal led them over to join the Marines in the gas station parking lot.
Lewis and the Prince watched for a moment as the two groups mingled. Arp walked over to a box sitting in the shade of the gas station’s wall and started grabbing MRE’s and tossing them to the Prince’s guard. The guards looked puzzled at the thick plastic bags, turning them over in their hands.
Arp turned around with an MRE in his hand. “Procedure for eating an MRE,” he said, loudly. The Prince’s men looked only mildly confused. They don’t have the language, but they recognize the attitude, Lewis thought.
“First assure yourself that there is no real food available.” Arp ostentatiously looked left and right. The guardsmen looked confused, but a few of the Marines chuckled. Father Pietr smiled, and shouted out a translation. The guardsmen relaxed and smiled.
“Your highness, I don’t think we want to be here when they taste their first MRE.”
“Your march rations are foul-tasting?” Duke Odo asked.
“Yes, sir, they are.”
“I had hoped things would have improved. You’ve had centuries to work on this, Thomas,” the Prince said.
Lewis smiled. “That’s the way of the world, sir. No one cares what the poor bloody infantry has to eat.”
Duke Odo laughed. “Even if a Prince is with them, sadly.”
“And we didn’t know you’d be coming back today,” Lewis added. “Otherwise we might have made more of an effort.”
“This way, then?” Lewis said, and started off towards down the street.
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