Chapter Seventeen

Lewis’ sword moved with agonizing slowness as he struggled to parry Siegfried’s attack. The baron was so damn fast, Lewis thought. Lewis managed to get his sword up to block the cut he expected but the baron’s sword wasn’t there. Siegfried’s sword somehow whipped up and beat Lewis’ blade away, out of line and to the right. Mentally and physically off-balance, Lewis winced. Here it comes.

Clang! Lewis’ head jerked with the impact to his helmet, and his ears rang. The armor protected him from the sharp edge of Siegfried’s sword. The non-magical training blade had no chance of penetrating Lewis’ enchanted armor. But the armor did little to soften the force of the blow behind it.

Siegfried Baron Vischennes stepped back a pace and raised his sword in salute. Lewis did the same, signaling the end to the bout. Siegfried pulled off his helmet, and shook his head. Father Pietr handed him a towel and he rubbed the sweat from his face. Lewis doffed his helmet as well, and accepted a second towel from the priestmonk.

“Captain, you are a quick study.”

“After you rang my bell like that, I don’t feel quick at all.”

“You are still building your stamina. At the beginning, you nearly touched me twice. That is a notable achievement for someone who claims never to have used a sword before.”

“I swear!” Lewis held up his hand in a mock boy scout salute. “Scouts honor!”

The Baron smiled. “I believe you. I wish, though, I could have seen how you fought on the village wall.” Three days of training, and the phenomena had not yet repeated. The only conclusion was that the sword only reacted like that in true combat, though how it knew was a mystery to all.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Father Pietr interjected. “Father John comes to set the wards.”

Lewis sketched a brief bow to the Baron. “You will excuse me?”

“Of course. Until tomorrow then?”

“Until tomorrow.”

Lewis turned to greet the Archimandrite. John was impressive as always with his stoic demeanor, old testament beard and tessellated robes. With him was his apprentice, the Hierodeacon Ambrose.

“Father, thank you for allowing me to accompany you.”

With Father Pietr translating, the Archimandrite replied, “I understand your desire to know what is done on your behalf. If you follow me, you may observe as Father Ambrose sets the guards and wards.”

Father John strode off into the darkness without waiting for a reply. Ambrose, Pietr and Lewis followed. A few yards away, they reached the edge of the Marine’s camp. The line of tents stretched off a short ways, away from the highway and into the desert; lit coldly by the light of a quarter moon.

The archimandrite waved his apprentice forward. The younger wizard didn’t have the full patriarchal beard, but still seemed wizardly enough for Lewis. He knelt, and removed something from his robe. It looked like a vial, made of some dark metal. Ambrose twisted the top, removing it with the familiar sound of a cork being pulled. He turned the vial over, wetting his finger with the contents.

Father Pietr began to narrate. “The Hierodeacon Ambrose is using holy oil, blessed by the Patriarch himself in Avalon.”

“The setting of guards and wards is one of the first mysteries. Really it is not so much of a mystery as many who are not archimandrites know its use. It may be safely used by those of little skill,” Father John added. “You experienced the effects of a similar charm when you attacked the goblin encampment the night before we met. You were blocked from advancing. Your hands glowed. The wards formed a barrier, and the guards alerted the shedim that you were near. The wards are not a powerful wall, as you discovered. They can be breached. Invisibly if the master is skilled. The purpose is to slow the attack and provide enough warning that a defense may be mounted.”

“I thought that all magic was only allowed to people like you, Father.” Lewis said.

“Yes; and again no. Craftsmen and artisans are permitted the enchantment of things. And there are the lesser mysteries. They are not common, but it is permitted for the laity to study them,” said Father John.

Pietr added, “I was discussing this with Corporal Coleman. These small mysteries are taught to parish priests, and others may know them too. Corporal Coleman said a good word in English might be ‘hedge magic’ or ‘hexes.’ When he explained those words, they seem to me to be apt. Charms for making water safe to drink. For finding north. Blessings. Or the guards and wards. Many know them. Some charms skirt the edges of the proscriptions. True magic, the high magic, is the exclusive domain of the archimandrite, ordained by the church and bound by vows to use their wisdom in the service of God.”

Father John added, “In this way, we guard against evil.”

Ambrose raised his hand. He held his hand oddly: palm outward, index finger and thumb pointing toward the sky and the other fingers curled down at the middle joint. He spoke softly, quietly enough that Lewis couldn’t recognize what language he spoke and moved his hand in a cross three times, with a flourish.

Pietr continued, “This charm, raised by a trained wizard and with holy chrism from the hand of the Patriarch, will be stronger than one made by a village priest. He will repeat this at the seven cardinal points, and the wards will be set.”

“Pethoukis briefed the watch on what to expect.” Though I suspect he didn’t hardly credit it himself, Lewis thought. But then, he hadn’t run into the wall like Jackson and I did. Ambrose, deep in concentration, walked along the perimeter of the camp to continue his efforts.

“Thank you, Father John,” Lewis said.

The archimandrite gazed at Lewis for a moment. His eyes were steady, where most men were uncomfortable holding anyone’s gaze too long. Lewis looked back, wondering what that was in aid of.

“We will need more than guards and wards all to soon.” Father John suddenly smiled. He raised his hand, index and middle finger up and the other two touching his thumb. He made the sign of the cross and spoke a prayer in what sounded like Greek.

Pietr translated, “Blessed is our God, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. The blessing of the Lord be upon you: Take courage and let your heart be strengthened; Place your trust in the Lord, for He shall vanquish our foes.

“Be with this warrior, be a Helper and Defender; Send him a radiant Angel; preserve him from all famine and destruction, and deliver him from fire, sword and invasions; and Grant now Your faithful servant strength, power and courage, aid and protection. Be merciful unto him and unto us all, and bless us all the days of our life.

“May Christ our true God, through the intercessions of his most pure Mother, by the power of the precious and life-giving Cross, by the protection of the holy and great Michael and Gabriel, and of all the armies of heaven, and of all His Saints, have mercy on you and strengthen you in the day of battle, and save us, for He is good and loves mankind.”

Father John laid a friendly hand on his shoulder and Lewis felt a warmth, an energy, in his chest. For a moment it seemed that there was a subtle golden fire dancing on the archimandrite’s hand, but then it was gone.

“O kyrios,” the archimandrite said.

***

The sun had set. A small electric lantern cast a small bubble of light around the front of Lewis’ tent. He sat on a kit bag, turning a small gold coin over and over with his fingers. The coin was roughly stamped, its edges uneven. The designs on the two faces were nearly worn smooth. As best he could guess, one was a head wearing a helmet. Coleman thought the obverse was a shield of some sort. The coin was worth at least $200 just for the gold, and no telling what a coin trader would want for it. He had a large, heavy bag full of them in his tent.

Lewis looked up to see Kimball approaching, accompanied by his team. Where everyone else had adopted the goblin armor wholesale, the three special forces soldiers had taken a different approach to adapting goblin spoils to their use.

They’d had the crusader armorers find smallish plates scavenged from goblin armor and fitted them into the plate carriers that had once held the ceramic armor plates issued by Uncle Sam. They’d wrapped goblin knee and elbow guards in canvas, and attached them in place of the plastic and polycarbonate they’d previously worn.

Among the hundreds of helmets that had been recovered from the dead, most were full helmets. Paine had found three that approximated the Army’s MICH helmets and rigged them to look as much like regular gear as possible. He’d even replaced the leather padding with the foam inserts from their original helmets, and managed to fit the issue helmet covers over the enchanted steel.

The effect was that the only visible difference between their current appearance and how they’d looked when he first met them at the border was the addition of a short sword at the belt for Vance and Paine, and a tomahawk for Kimball. Lewis knew that they’d snagged several daggers, but only one was visible, secured hilt down on Vance’s chest.

“Captain Lewis?” Kimball said.

“Yes, Sergeant?”

“Got some news for you. We found your armored brigade. It’s the Snake River Brigade, like we thought. Made contact with some of their scouts on the other side of Rafha, and passed on your message.”

“Outstanding. What do they know?”

“Little that’s current; they’ve been having the same troubles with comms we’ve had. They know about the 4th ID and how they got fucked; they heard about that before they pushed off from Kuwait. Their orders are to secure the flank to, quote, ‘facilitate the withdrawal of American forces from the region.’ The idea is, they’re screening the bug-out; but the general sense is that they’re being left out to dry while more important people get on the boat.

“What’s their morale like?”

“Well enough, I guess. They weren’t in theater when it started – they were matching up with their gear and shaking out to deploy up by Mosul. Steady for now, lots of veterans, the scout said. But they’ve seen enough, and they’re edgy. Don’t blame ’em, really. Too much weird fucking shit for comfort.

“The scout told me that they’re already making contact with screening elements from enemy forces to the north. One of their scout platoons got sandbagged by a dragon, only two survivors. They’ve got no air cover, and haven’t since they got out of eyesight of the base in Kuwait. They’ve lost every drone they’ve put up trying to get eyes on the situation, so they’re flying blind.

“And, like you asked, I wasn’t very clear about my objectives. I left the impression that there’s a gaggle of stragglers trying to make their way home to momma. They said so far as they know, the road back to Kuwait is clear, but that the goblins are coming down the pike awful fast. That road won’t be open forever.”

“Very good. I’m going to need you three to be ready to make contact again. The crusaders believe that the enemy force is after us, not the 116th.”

“How’re they getting that?”

“Fucking magic, Sergeant. At least that’s what they tell me. They haven’t been wrong yet, so I’m prepared to take that on faith for now. For now, I’m just going to assume that everything out there wants to kill me personally.”

“Roger that.”

***

Lewis strode into the command tent with Pethoukis and the special forces noncoms in his wake. “Arp, inform the Prince that there are new developments, and ask him if could he please join me here?”

“Aye, aye, sir.” The corporal hurried out of the tent.

Inside, his two army lieutenants were eating MREs straight from the bag. Van Buskirk sat in the corner cleaning his armor. “Gentlemen. Things are happening.”

Lewis walked over to the small map table. Laid atop was a gas station map of northern Saudi Arabia, with their current location just west of Rafha conveniently indicated with a push-pin.

“We still don’t have communications established with command in Kuwait City, but we’ve established contact of sorts with the armored force coming west up the highway toward Rafha. Kimball confirmed that it is the 116th Cavalry,” Lewis said.

Lieutenant Random looked up from his meal. “Snake River Brigade. Heavy Armor, Idaho National Guard, pretty solid unit for guardsmen. We trained with them a couple years ago back at Ft. Lewis.”

“And, because no silver lining ever lacks a cloud, the 116th’s scouts are reporting a large enemy formation pushing south across the desert.”

The tent door twitched aside. Into the gloomy interior came the Crown Prince, Father Pietr, Grand Duke Gerard and Strategos Odo.

“Good evening, your Highness; Gentlemen.”

“Good Evening, Captain,” the Prince said – without the use of his translators. Heavily accented, to be sure, but clearly understandable. Damn, I’m feeling slow today. The only words I’ve learned of their language are ‘yes’ and ‘no.'”

He continued through Father Pietr, “Thomas, you really must stop being so formal. Your corporal informs us that there is news.”

“Yes. Yes there is,” Lewis replied, and brought the Prince and the others up to speed.

“Gentlemen, from our perspective the arrival of both friendly and enemy forces presents problems and opportunities. I’d be a lot more pleased at the appearance of a full brigade of heavy armor if I hadn’t heard what happened to the 4th ID at An-Nasariya. We dealt with just the edges of the main attack, and look what happened to both of us. If that ‘large formation’ heading south is gunned up like whatever did for the 4th, then the presence of an armor brigade is just a giant target.”

“Our intelligence is distressingly thin. We do not have reliable communications with the Army brigade approaching from the east. We do not know the exact size or capabilities of the enemy force advancing down from the north. We understand that forward elements of both of these forces are in contact already.

“Our scouts and yours, your highness, have both spotted dragons above the area of engagement. The 116th also reports dragons along with goblin infantry. We have seen no sign of American or coalition air power, and now we know that all remaining theater airpower is staying home in Kuwait. This does not speak well for the chances of the Snake River Brigade.

“Despite our recent gains in manpower,” he nodded to his lieutenants, “and equipment,” here he nodded to the Prince, “we remain a small force. Two short companies, one of which is a mashup of men from a dozen units. Our armor and weapons are the match of our enemies, now; technically speaking, even better considering that we have both guns and magic weapons.

“But two companies is nothing against a brigade, and we have no guarantee that the enemy might not actually be of divisional strength or greater.

“Prince Raimond, I have seen you and your men in combat, and you are fearsome. But as you said yourself, we were fighting merely the outermost fringes of the enemy host. You have five hundred, but even if you are each the equal of ten goblins, there are probably significantly more than 5000 goblins. And dragons, and who knows what else.

“And as I have known since we first met, my primary goal must be to get you, your men, and your knowledge to the United States. My home. Where you can help us defeat the enemy.

“Much as it pains me to suggest this, the only sensible course of action is to use the Snake River Brigade as a screen and move directly to the American bases on the gulf.”

The Prince nodded thoughtfully as the last of the speech trickled through his translator. He turned and spoke for some time to his general, the Strategos Odo; and his uncle and prime minister, the Kouropalates Grand Duke Gerard. The conversation got a little heated at a couple points as the Prince argued some point. Finally, the Prince’s councillors nodded their heads. To Lewis, it appeared that Gerard acquiesced with a resigned expression. But Strategos Odo looked happy to be done arguing for something he didn’t really agree with anyway. Lewis thought he detected the hint of a smile in his long face.

The Prince turned to Captain Lewis. “Thomas, my friend, you give good counsel.” He waved at his two advisors and said, “In point of fact, the very same counsel as I received from these two maiden aunts.” He smiled broadly to take the sting from the words.

“On the march here, we discussed what might happen when finally we encountered the enemy again. We even discussed what would happen should we encounter more of your compatriots in the same straits as we found you just three days ago.

“We had to rescue you. As you have no doubt discerned, our mission required that we rescue you for no other reason than that we had to make contact with someone, and how better to make an introduction?

“That, at least, is the argument I used on my uncle.”

“But there is more to it than that. I sincerely hope that you realize – that you know – that our aid is not entirely self-regarding. We are fighting a great evil. And fight it I shall.

“You have seen us fight, yes. But you have not seen us stretch ourselves to the utmost. We used what power we needed to defeat the foes arranged against you. But that is not the limit of our power. I intend, and my uncle and my blood brother will come with me regardless of their good counsel, to fight the enemy wherever I may find him.

“Are not the guardsmen of the Snake River Brigade as worthy of salvation as your own good self? Are not the enemy advancing toward this city as deserving of destruction as those whose lives we ended in the field before the village where we met?”

The Prince laughed. “And who knows, we may just need a brigade of armored cavalry some day. It seems a shame to just throw one away.”

Kimball and Vance broke up laughing, while the American officers struggled unsuccessfully to keep a straight face.

“Well, then, your highness, how do you propose that we go about doing that?”

“I have a plan.”

***

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Continue on to Chapter Eighteen.

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