Chapter Sixteen

Lewis stopped short of the training ground they’d set up on a flat piece of sandy ground adjacent the camp. Van Buskirk and his sergeant were overseeing the drill of a dozen men of his new company while a few dozen more observed. The wind was picking up and many of the men had wrapped scarves around their faces to cut the dust.

The American soldiers were all now wearing banded armor looted from the goblins. The Prince’s armorers had no doubt breathed a deep sigh of relief when they’d finished the last of the outfitting the night before, and Lewis had as well. The sight was jarring as always, the mix of modern and medieval. Lewis saw one soldier with Oakley sunglasses under the brow of his bronzed helmet. Bits and pieces of Army digicam peeked out from under the armor, and most of the men had rigged their load-bearing gear to ride over the armor.

The Prince had loaned him the use of a dozen veteran soldiers as trainers. Soldiers who were now, judging by the tone and volume of their shouting, profanely and righteously disgusted with the performance of their pupils. They were from the Prince’s royal guard, all of them long-service veterans. Since they’d passed Arar two days before, they’d been drilling his men in sword and shield every moment they weren’t marching or sleeping.

The twelve men in line bore on their left arms rectangular shields with rounded corners. Some of the shields still showed the garish reds and golds of goblin heraldry, while others had been scraped clean and polished or covered with canvas in desert-pattern pixellated camouflage. In their right hands they held short swords selected from the dead for a more or less uniformity of size and function.

Two of the Crusader drill instructors strode up and down the line watching as the men attempted to follow their shouted commands. The first day it had been a struggle just to impart the proper techniques for holding a sword, but Lewis could see that they were much more confident now; nowhere near as awkward as they’d been at the beginning of their training. But confidence was not the same as mastery.

Van Buskirk saw his captain and jogged over. “Captain Lewis.”

“Lieutenant. How goes the training?”

“It’s a fucking nightmare, sir, like we expected. No one has the first fucking clue on how to use a sword. And every movie sword fight we’ve seen has stuffed our head with bad ideas. The crusaders are beating those ideas out, but it’s slow going.

“On the upside, I think going with the Roman style is working out as best as we could hope. The other options would be worse… We know how to march, we know how to operate as a unit. At least, we all did once. But none of us has ever had to march and fight, not all at once; and that’s the problem. The Prince’s men are a godsend, sir. They’re familiar with Roman tactics from their own history, and once I got across what I wanted, they were right on it.”

“Odo told me that in a few months, he could make passable infantry out of us.”

“Only a few months? The Bruce will be pleased to hear that. He’s on the verge of tears, he sees so much suck.”

Lewis laughed. Van Buskirk’s sergeant was almost as dour as Pethoukis. “I think he and Pethoukis are in love. Same cheery outlook on life.”

Van Buskirk smiled. “We’ll have to postpone the wedding. I need the Bruce training.”

“Van, I think – still think – you’re right; there’s no other path forward that takes better advantage of both the goblin weapons and the training we already have. And we have to start somewhere.

“There’s just so little training we can squeeze in to the day when we’re already spending as much time on the road as the Prince’s horses can stand. I’ll be pleased if we can achieve the lofty heights of weapons familiarization. I pray some of this sinks in because I have no confidence that we’re going to be able to just cruise across into Kuwait without there’s someone trying to fuck with us. And if that happens, I will count it a major victory if no one stabs themselves in the ass.

“I…,” Loud shouting interrupted their discussion. One of the royal guard was yelling at one of van Buskirk’s soldiers. “That’s Railen. He’s the best DI,” van Buskirk said. Railen looked the part. Lean, sharp features contorted in disgust with a sneer visible even from a distance.

The crusader grabbed the sword from the hapless soldier and stepped back a pace. He yelled again, “Garde!” and the soldier awkwardly raised his shield. Railen stepped in and with his left hand grabbed the shield and lifted it up another foot and tilted it back slightly. Less aggressively, he said again, “Garde!”

He stepped back and raised the short goblin sword. “Garde!” he shouted and lunged forward in a blur. The sword hit the shield just off-center, to the left of the central boss. The shield held as Railen had pulled the blow at the last instant, but the soldier was knocked off-balance.

“What the Fuck!” Railen screamed. Even through his thick, almost-French accent, that part at least was clearly understandable. Despite his apparent anger, Railen patiently repositioned the soldier’s shield and went through the drill once more.

“Well, at least they’re learning English,” Lewis commented.

“They learned that one right off,” van Buskirk said. He paused, and looked on at the drilling soldiers.

“Captain, we’re depending too much on the Crusaders,” van Buskirk said. He lifted a hand to forestall Lewis’ reply. “No matter that they have the knowledge and experience we need. We need to figure out how to use all of,” he waved his hand at the training soldiers, “This. Together at once. We have the beginnings of a doctrine, but no training, no experience, no confidence. We have to be able to defeat the enemy on our own, or in the long run we’re fucked.”

“Van, I don’t think we’ll have to wait for the long run.”

***

Lewis scraped the last of the food from an MRE pouch as he watched his corpsmen fight his way through the crowd of Marines around the mess line toward him.

“Captain Lewis?”

“Yeah, Doc?”

“I’ve got some good news.”

“You say that like you also have bad news.” As he listened, Lewis spun the plastic spoon around his fingers a few times.

“No, not exactly, sir.”

“Well, out with it,” Lewis ordered.

“It’s our wounded, sir.”

“Yes?”

“They’re not wounded anymore.”

Lewis stopped playing with his spoon and looked at Fagan. “What do you mean they’re not wounded? You said they were going to pull through.”

“That’s the thing, sir. They did. I released the three of them to active duty this morning. No medical restrictions – they’re completely recovered.”

“Avery had his arm near cut off, how the hell is he recovered?”

“I don’t know, sir. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like the his arm did a half-year’s worth of healing in half a week.” Fagan paused.

“Go on, Doc.”

“The only thing different is Father John. Remember he asked to pray with the wounded back at the village?”

“Yes.”

“I think his prayers work a little better than ours.”

***

Lewis and Gamez found Father Pietr sitting with Father John at the edge of the Crusader camp. “Father Pietr, just the man I want to see.” Gamez translated that into Arabic, but Father Pietr surprised Lewis by replying in English.

“Good evening, Captain.” His accent was noticeable, but only slight.

“You speak English now?”

“Only a little. I learn.”

“Is that more magic?”

“No, captain. Well, perhaps a little,” The monk smiled. He held up his left hand. Wrapped around his wrist was a knotted rope. Lewis had seen in before, but not looked closely. He had assumed it was a rosary, like the nuns and priests had carried when he was a child; but this was different. Lewis had seen Pietr moving the beads through his hand often enough as he translated for the Prince.

Lewis bent down to examine it. It was black, with dozens of intricately tied knots, interspersed with pairs of red and white stone beads. The beads were carved, shaped into a three-dimensional celtic basketwork of threads that wove around and through each other in a pattern complicated enough to make his head swim. Where a rosary would have had a separate strand of beads leading down to a crucifix; there was a three-barred orthodox cross in silver. Strangely it wasn’t engraved or carved, merely plain and highly polished silver.

“This was my father’s, and his father’s before him. It helps to learn. Makes the memory stronger. When I hear a word, or a thought, that I wish to remember, I place it my house of memory. The komosini makes the image more, aah…”

“Vivid?” The father ratcheted one of the beads through his fingers, obvious now that he was committing that word to memory.

“Yes. A stronger image, one that stays in the memory. When I want to remember, I walk through the house in my mind, and I see, and I remember.”

“Wait, I’ve heard of this. A guy I was in school with did it except he called it a memory palace. You take a place you’re familiar with, and mentally put things in it you want to remember. And then later, you imagine walking through it and you see all those things?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“And you’ve memorized every English word you’ve heard since we met you at the village?”

“Yes.” Pietr smiled again and shrugged. “It is a large palace. I’ve learned many languages. It is part of my ‘job’ as you say. I have Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, German, French, English… Your Corporal Coleman said you call it Middle English; fascinating, the differences in only a few centuries. I very much wish to see what has happened to French over this time. I’ve also learned several goblin languages and dialects.

“Having that knowledge makes learning a new language simpler. The komosini speeds the learning of it.”

“So why don’t you all have one?”

“Most have not the need, and without training it is not so helpful. And they are rare; it takes great skill to craft.”

“I’ll be damned.” Every time he turned around, more surprises. No matter how much he had his nose rubbed in it, part of his brain kept insisting that guys with swords must be rustic and unsophisticated. Intellectually, he knew that the Medieval Europeans built cathedrals and castles; were philosophers and historians along with being peasants, merchants and soldiers. These crusaders were all of that, with magic on top. Honestly, he thought to himself, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as sharp as Father Pietr, magic memory or not.

“Well, Father, the reason I came over is that I wanted to ask about our wounded. Who aren’t actually wounded anymore.”

Father Pietr turned to the Archimandrite who had sat patiently all the while, and translated. Halfway through Pietr’s exposition, his eyebrows raised slightly and he glanced at Lewis. When Pietr was finished, he made a brief reply.

“The Archimandrite says, ‘I did not imagine that you would be surprised.’ I fear, captain, that this was an error in translation on my part. When I offered Father John’s prayers for your wounded, I did not make clear what would happen. You are not offended? Is there some custom we knew not…”

“No, no, Father. We wanted to know how it happened.”

Father John rattled off another clipped speech to Pietr. Pietr translated, “The laying on of hands, for healing, is not a common gift. I prayed to the Holy Spirit, and through him your men were helped. You are to be our ally, and there was little risk in the attempt. Your soldiers were cleanly wounded and already healing. Your surgeon is very skilled. I was keenly interested in his views on sickness.

“Were they our own men, it would be expected that with a healer there, then they should be healed if there was no danger to the healer.”

Well, that’s a cold way of looking at it, Lewis thought, but on the other hand, not that different from battlefield triage either. “There are risks to healing?” he asked.

“Yes. There are always risks,” Father John answered. The Archimandrite gazed steadily at Lewis. He’s a cool one, Lewis thought. The priest nodded, and gave a brief smile. He turned to Pietr and rattled off another stream of Occitan.

Pietr said, “Father John also had a question of you, Captain. May we examine your sword?”

“Uh, sure.” Lewis pulled the sword belt over his shoulder and spun it twice to wrap it around the scabbard. He handed it to the priestmonk, who passed it to the Archimandrite John.

“You are aware, of course, that your sword is enchanted?” Father Pietr asked. Lewis nodded, and the priest monk continued, “From what you told the Prince – which he retold to me – we are… concerned about its nature.”

“Concerned?” Lewis’ hand of its own accord reached for the hilt, and he felt uneasy that it wasn’t at his side.

“Your sword is a prize of battle, won from the goblins. Prince Raimond and the Strategos both realized at once that it did not have the look of the goblin-work.”

“I noticed that myself, but I didn’t think much of it. My knowledge of goblins being so extensive.”

Father Pietr smiled. “Yes. There are goblins on many worlds; even goblins from the same world have different customs, different ways of sword-making. Could it not be from some tribe we know nothing of? But there is this: your sword looks like something out of our own history. A sword, much like yours, rests in the royal armory. It was taken from the dead hand of a goblin king by King Henric II six hundred years and more ago.”

The monk turned and stepped towards Archimandrite John and examined the sword in the wizard’s hands. They set to talking. It sounded Latin, Lewis thought. When the two clerics finished their discussion, the Archimandrite drew the sword and handed the scabbard to Father Pietr. He ran his hand lightly over the blade, concentrating intently. All the while, he murmured softly to himself. Father Pietr waited patiently.

After a moment, the Archimandrite looked up and spoke briefly in Occitan to the monk. Pietr looked back to the captain and said,

“Captain Lewis, this sword was not forged by goblins. The form of the sword is the first clue, of course. Goblins do not make swords in this style, not that we have ever seen.”

Father Pietr looked thoughtful for a moment. “How can I explain? Captain, to enchant a sword the smith must spend months forging the blade. The smith brings out the essence of a thing, makes it real and present in that thing, by working his will into the very steel. That is how a sword becomes sharp, how armor becomes strong. It takes great skill and devotion to forge a blade of even modest quality. To form a blade of the highest quality can take a year or more. This is such a sword.

“But, once the work is complete, it is done. To change the blade or its enchantment would mean forging it again. So we have always thought.

“This sword is a thus a puzzle to us. For there is another enchantment, behind and above the powers put there by the smith who forged it. The feel of the enchantments that Father John sees are different both from each other, and unlike any goblin-work we know.

“Someone forged a sword, one fit for a king. Another hand made it entirely new, and stronger. And then somehow it ended up in the hands of a minor goblin chieftain; who you slew. I would give much to know the tale of your sword, captain.”

Lewis said, “I am no swordsman. And until last week, I didn’t believe that enchantments were any more than fairy tales. Marines don’t fight with swords. We haven’t for more than a century. We use rifles, tanks and artillery. When we carry swords, it’s only ceremonial. Hell, and we’re about the only ones who even do that. But using that sword, it was like the sword was fighting for me. I still ache from how it used me, I don’t think I ever used some of those muscles before.

“I can tell you, though, that as odd as it was, it didn’t feel wrong.”

Father Pietr took the sword back from the Archimandrite and returned it to its scabbard. He handed it, reverently, back to Lewis. The Archimandrite spoke again to Pietr.

Lewis took the scabbard, and sheathed the sword. He pulled his arm through the baldric and secured the sword at his waist.

“John wants you to know that he senses nothing unclean in it. But it is strong; very strong indeed. A sword that is enchanted not to increase its own powers, but your skill… That is rare, Captain, very rare.”

***

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Continue on to Chapter Seventeen.

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