Rafha was a low-slung city, dusty and a bit shabby. Minarets rose above the low apartments and houses here and there. Lewis halted the column in the middle of Highway 85 just west of town. The Captain climbed to the top of Lieutenant Random’s Stryker, observing the scene. Rafha was a ramshackle tide halted by a thin breakwater of dusty palm trees that lined the highway where it passed south of the town. South of the highway, there was only a small one-strip airport, the highway south, and open desert.
While the highway held back the city, it did not hold back its citizens. An exodus was in progress. Rafhans were pouring out of the city. Where the roads were jammed too full of cars and fleeing trucks, the locals just drove out into the desert to get around. Dozens of cars were bogged down in the sand, some sending up rooster tails of sand and dust as they tried to extricate themselves. Many more had been deserted. The morning sun, refracted through the windshields of the abandoned cars, made for an oddly beautiful sight.
Off in the distance, he could hear the low thunderous rumble of artillery fire. From the ground below, Pethoukis shouted up, “Looks like something put a scare into the locals. Sir, do we wait for this to clear, try to get through, or just drive around?” Pethoukis asked.
“We go around to the south,” Lewis said. “Any word from the 116th?”
“No sir. Comms are still hinky, too much interference. Coleman had Evans drive out this morning with a radio. He got almost five miles before they lost signal. So we should be able to talk to them once we get closer.
“You can hear the guns, though. They’re in it already,” Pethoukis said as he climbed on to the Stryker.
Random and Burke’s Strykers were in the van. Directly behind the armored vehicles were the Humvees carrying the men of Lewis’ two infantry companies. Tight behind the Americans were the lances of crusader cavalry. The Prince and Strategos Odo were pushing them as fast as could be managed, trying to keep up with the much faster motorized convoy.
The rest of the Prince’s embassy and the joint baggage train – beasts of burden and cargo trucks both – were a couple klicks further back, guarded by the less combat-capable American soldiers and airmen along with Temple Knights and two lances of the Prince’s Royal Regiment.
Lieutenant Burke clambered up onto the Stryker and joined them as Random popped the commander’s hatch.
“Lieutenants, I want you and van Buskirk to make a lane across the highway south. Block the traffic out of Rafha so the Prince’s cavalry can cross without interference. The locals will understand what armored vehicles mean; they’ll be less likely to cause trouble.
“Then I’ll take my company through and by then the baggage train should be caught up. Shepherd them through, then fall in behind.”
“No problem, sir, we can do that.” Burke said.
“Captain, are we really planning on attacking a division-sized force of goblins and dragons?” Random asked.
“God help me, yes we are. There’s two thousand soldiers about to be ground up just like the 4th infantry up at An-Nasiriyah. The Prince feels that we can save them.”
“‘Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!’ Is he serious?” asked Burke.
“Burke, you didn’t see them in the valley. I did. They attacked on the short side of 4:1 odds and won with next to no casualties. No casualties if you don’t count the thousand and a half dead goblins. If they say they’ve got the juice, I’m just gonna have to believe it,” Lewis said.
Pethoukis spat over the side of the Stryker. “Hell, Lieutenant, it’s not just King Arthur and the Round Table we got on our side. We’ve got Merlin, too. What could go wrong?” Pethoukis was trying a little too hard to be optimistic, Lewis thought.
The first sergeant continued, “I don’t know what the fuck that means to be a wizard, but if they’re not as hard-core at magicking shit up as the Prince is at killing, I’m gonna be surprised. Have you watched Father John? He healed up Avery, and his arm was almost chopped the fuck off.” Pethoukis looked back toward the west. “You know, he’s serious; like serious serious. With that getup and that beard he looks like he’s some kind of fancy Santa Claus. He seems nice enough, but behind that robe he’s got a cold motherfucker vibe.”
Lewis smiled and said, “Yeah, Coleman said he was a cross between Albert Einstein and the Terminator.” Pethoukis and the two lieutenants laughed.
“But let’s not get all dewy-eyed. We’re heading for the shit. We’re about to conduct a joint operation with people from another world, against an enemy from yet another world. Or more than one, if what Father Pietr says is true. Gentlemen, I’ve run out of fucking fingers and toes trying to enumerate the issues.
Lewis held up a finger. “No clear command structure. Though I can’t say exactly why, I trust the Prince. He and I can work together, I think. But that’s not enough; we’ve not fought together and we don’t speak the same language. It boils down to the fact that I can’t give him orders, and he can’t give me any. And I’m not in Brogan’s chain of command either. So we’re talking three independent forces trying to work together.”
“Numbers two through too fucking many: communications. Comms with the crusaders are going to be for shit, since they have no experience working with us; or fuck, even any real clue about the tactical implications of radios. Plus the fact that all our communications are going to be filtered through at least two languages. That’s a blueprint for fuckups.”
“Communications with the Snake River Gang are going to be bad until we get close; and while I presume they do know how to talk on the radio we know nothing of the commander of the 116th even if we know his orders. We don’t know what his intent is or what his superiors back in Kuwait told him. Does he think he’s guarding a flank, doing a reconnaissance in force? We don’t know.
“And he doesn’t know who the hell we are or have any reason to place his faith in us, and that’s a problem all by itself. I sent Kimball out to make contact, and gave him everything we know about fighting goblins, and a gift package of goblin gear. But we don’t know if he’s understood or acted on what we told him. I’ll be sending Kimball out again, but is he going to listen, really listen, to an sf sergeant?
“Intelligence, we have none. Reconnaissance, we have none. Which brings us to coordination. Let’s assume for a second that the enemy all drop dead when they’re told to. The big question is whether or not the 116th will play ball. If their Colonel Brogan balks, rescuing him and his men is going to become a lot more difficult.”
Burke and Random nodded, somberly. Random asked, “How sure are we that we’re the target?”
“We’re not. All we have is what Archimandrite John tells us. But the guns we’re hearing over that way,” Lewis pointed to the northeast, “tell us that something is coming. Whether the 116th is just in the way or not will soon be a moot point. But I’m morally certain that we are the target. Why else would a large force have come this far south, this fast, into the middle of fucking nowhere if there wasn’t a purpose?”
“Well, if we’re the real target like the crusaders say, then ducking around the behind the 116th is only going to delay the process. The 116th gets ground to chum, and then we get attacked anyway, probably from behind.”
“That, Lt. Random, is the only reason I agreed to this.”
“It’s going to be a ratfuck. I know it.” said Pethoukis.
“I’m not going to argue with that,” Burke said. “But if we can save an entire armored brigade, put the hurt on these fuckers, and still get the Prince through it, well, frontal assault for the win, right?”
“I hope we can be a little more subtle. At least at first,” Lewis said, and smiled. “I need you two to be sharp, and prepared to be adaptable. Your secondary goal is to kill as many motherfuckers as you can, by any means available. We know too little to have anything as sensible as a plan. We’ll have to make do with guidelines.
“But remember, the only primary objective that we can entertain is to protect the Prince, and get him and his embassy safely stateside. Understood?”
“Outstanding. Those national guardsmen are waiting to stick their dicks in the meat grinder, and we’re just going to have to cut to the front of the line.”
The Marines had passed through the impromptu crossing that Burke had set up over the highway south out of Rafha. Past the town, what little greenery had managed to grab hold here and there in the presence of people died out rapidly. They were angling north to pick up highway 85 again on the other side of town.
Lewis saw the spark a second before he heard the report of the gunshot. Coleman’s head jerked from the impact of the bullet striking the back of his helmet.
“Fuck!” Coleman shouted, and spun the thumper around to the right. “Who fucking shot me?”
Angelo, standing in the bed of the humvee behind, opened up with his .50 cal. Lewis watched the tracers reach out across the sandto a battered Toyota pickup racing toward them. Two bursts disabled the engine, and the occupants piled out. Another burst cut one of them in half.
“Cease fire!” Lewis shouted. “Coleman, give them a few.” Coleman unsafed the Mk 19 grenade launcher and fired three 40mm grenades down range. The grenades raised a cloud of dust laced with fragments, punctuated with a hollow crack that echoed across the sand.
“Movement?” Coleman asked.
“We’re good. Keep moving.” Lewis watched, but saw nothing stirring in or around the wreckage of the truck. A minute or so later, they were back on paved roads heading east.
The ground opened up to the east of town, a bit flatter than what they’d been traveling through the last day or so. The sun was warming things up quickly. It was spring, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t get wicked hot. There was dust on the northern horizon as they turned left off the highway. A one lane road led north, and Lewis kept his vehicles on the track. For now, at least.
Lewis watched through his binoculars as Prince Raimond led his fifty lances off the highway a little west of where Lewis had left the road. They’d go cross-country, parallel to Lewis’ path. He lowered his binoculars and noticed that Pethoukis was looking that way, too.
“Hell of a sight, isn’t it?”
“No shit, sir. No shit.”
The Prince was in the van, his golden armor clearly visible and almost impossibly bright in the sun. Behind him, Siegfried rode as his banner man, carrying a pennant embroidered in red and gold silk with the royal dragon and lion. In neat ranks of four, the column moved at a canter, their lances and banners held high with the morning sun glinting off the edges of the enchanted steel of their lances. As they moved off the highway, the column began kicking up dust. The fine desert sand rose up and engulfed the rear of the column in a sepia-toned haze.
Lewis turned and looked back at his company. Rather more pedestrian, he thought. The goblins hadn’t been as much into polished steel, silver, and gold. The bronze colors of their armor worked, bizarrely they almost complemented the digicam and blackened metal of their issue gear now that he was used to it.
The Humvees and Strykers in desert paint didn’t have the pageantry of horse cav, brightly caparisoned with banners flying. But his Marines – and his soldiers, he remembered – were as ready as they were going to be. A dozen hours of training in new weapons and tactics wasn’t much. But they already knew how to fight and that’s what really mattered, not the tools.
“We’re a damn sight better armored than when this whole clusterfuck began,” Pethoukis said.
“That we are. Let’s hope it makes a difference. Go tell Kimball it’s time to go all secret squirrel for us. Make sure he’s got the package”
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Continue on to Chapter Nineteen.