Chapter Thirty-Five

Evans watched the dragon die. The giant worm thrashed, and he lost track of the captain. Trolls again scattered, this time not just in fear of the legs and tail of the dragon but in panic.

At the apex of the broad wedge of mounted knights, Strategos Odo crashed into the rear of the troll regiments before the hill. The trolls had only moments to prepare and the confusion sown by hundreds of incoming, self-guided arrows did little to help. The leading ranks of lancers crashed into the disorganized trolls, sending a visible shockwave through the monster’s formation.

The death of the dragon, and now a sudden and unexpected attack from the rear; Evans could see the growing sense that suddenly things were no longer going their way spread through the enemy. The trolls nearest the rock Evans had chosen as his perch were the first to realize the trap they were in. A perception reinforced when high explosive shells and missiles from the advancing tanks and IFVs of the 116th began to fall in their midst; and Odo and his crusaders chewing through their ranks like a chainsaw.

Evans swung his scope to the right to look east along the line held at such cost by his Captain, the Prince, and their men. Enormous billows of sand stretched up into sky, obscuring the view of the hill where the rest of the 116th still waited, firing missiles and artillery rounds into any available target. It was a glorious sight; the four columns of armor charging across the desert, lances of fire from their guns flaring orange and red, preceded by the rain of metal from the 155 mm shells and missiles, the explosions scattering the panicking goblins before them, or burying them in freshly made craters.

The four columns split like the fingers of a hand. The northerly two columns angled to Evans’ left to strike the other side of the trolls and the remainder of the main body of the goblins. The third column aimed for the gap between the trolls who had assaulted the north side of Lewis’ hill and the goblins who had attacked van Buskirk on the east. The southernmost column of tanks swung far right, aiming to hit those goblins from the south.

Evans’ spotter quietly said, “Two hammers and an anvil, motherfuckers.”

Evans surveyed the scene. “It’ll be worse for them if they run.” He took aim at a troll who looked like he was trying to be useful, and pulled the trigger.

“Not that that ever stops them.”

***

Lewis staggered to his feet and almost collapsed onto the splayed out foreleg of the dragon. His sword hung limply in his hand; he hadn’t the strength to lift it. His body hurt, everywhere; the exhaustion and pain on a level he’d never experienced. Everything had been wrung out of him and he felt like a leaky sack of hammered shit. He turned and leaned his back against the dragon’s body. He could feel the warmth of the thing even through his armor. There were trolls running away, but they paid no attention to him. Now their deep voices sounded fearful and angry. But mostly fearful.

He slid down the side of the dragon and sat on the sand. And waited. A minute or two later, the Prince and two of his knights landed in front of him. They had jumped from the top of the berm to alight, like superman, before him. Their armor was splattered with blood, they looked more like the stars of a really eccentric horror movie than refuges from a medieval ballad or tale of chivalric knights.

The Prince lifted his visor and looked down at him with sadness in his eyes; but also pride, Lewis thought. The Prince stepped forward, gathered the captain in his arms, and jumped back to the wall.

The sounds of gunfire tapered off into the distance. The clash of swords and axes could no more be heard. Lewis’ hand was still on the sword, but the rich reds and oranges of a desert sunset greeted his eyes when he opened them. The battle was over; they had won. One half-choked sob escaped him when he thought on who he had fed into the meat grinder to achieve that victory. Weariness finally overtook him, and he slept.

***

“Captain?”

Lewis swam up through miles of darkness. His eyes wouldn’t obey his commands and someone had crammed his brains with burlap. How the fuck does your head itch from the inside? He felt like someone had disassembled his body, beaten each part individually and had it stitched back together by a clumsy five-year-old.

“Captain?” A distant and remote part of his brain dimly recognized van Buskirk’s voice.

“What…” he managed to get out. He opened his eyes to darkness. A few headlights shone down into the hollow below the rough sandy walls they had defended, providing little light and many shadows. He tried to sit up, felt hands lift him up a little. He reclined against something soft.

“What the fuck!” He realized he wasn’t wearing armor. He grabbed for his sword, couldn’t find it. He tried to stand and pain stabbed his back. The hands pushed him down.

“Easy, captain, easy!” van Buskirk said, softly. “It’s all over. We let you sleep for a few hours, but you’re going to want to be awake right about now.”

Lewis looked up, saw van Buskirk’s thin face looking tired and worn, dusty. There were flecks of dried blood in a line under his left eye.

“How many?”

“Thirty-one dead from your company, sixty-five from mine. About the same number wounded. Fagan’s dead, but Father John and Father Theodore have saved a lot who’d otherwise have joined him.

“Lieutenant Random is dead. Sergeant Bruce. First Sergeant Pethoukis.”

“I knew. I know.” The memories of what actually happened and the pseudo-memories the sword had planted in his head were blurring in his tired mind. He saw Pethoukis die a hundred times. Only one time mattered.

“Father Pietr told me that Baron Siegfried died trying to save Pethoukis. Twelve other knights and thirty-seven squires and men-at-arms KIA.”

Lewis let his head drift back. He looked up at the stars, always so bright in the desert. Did the same stars shine wherever these monsters came from?

“Here was a royal fellowship of death,” he murmured.

“Sir?”

“Never mind. What of the enemy?”

“There’s no counting it, sir. Evans said five hundred or so made it back down the draw. More jumped off the cliff. Between the mounted pursuit and Brogan’s tanks, every goblin and troll on the upper plain is dead or captured.”

“And there’s damn few prisoners – the crusaders took none, and we’ve only taken in hand the ones who came up here unarmed. Brogan wasn’t stopping the tanks for anything.”

“It’s got to be over 10,000. Most died in the pursuit, after they routed.”

“That’s always the way of it. Is Brogan here?”

“No, he’s seeing to his own. I talked to him about a half hour ago, he’ll be over about 200.”

“Good. Now why did you want me awake?”

“Coleman, Arp, help the captain up.”

***

Prince Raimond waited down by the dragon. The corpses of the trolls were too heavy to be easily dragged away by hand, so van Buskirk had ordered the men to tow them off with Humvees and chains. Lewis could see a growing pile of them a few hundred yards off to the east.

The smell was terrible. He hadn’t noticed the dragon having a stench when it was alive, but in death it smelled like a sewer. The blood soaked into the sand from the troll and goblin dead didn’t help either. Father Pietr was there, as was Strategos Odo. Some of the crusader embassy’s clerical arm had come up while he was out, he saw. The Abbot-Bishop Thibaud stood beside Father Pietr, as did the Metropolitan-Legate Macarius. The Metropolitan smiled broadly as Lewis arrived. Father John was over by the dragon’s mouth, observing the dead monster.

Van Buskirk had gathered some of Lewis’s men, too. Coleman and Arp had helped Lewis walk down the hill; Evans and Burke were already there. Van Buskirk nodded at Father Pietr.

“We are all gathered? Very well.” He nodded to the Metropolitan, who said a brief blessing in Occitan-French. Father Pietr for once did not provide a translation for the Americans assembled. When the prelate completed his prayer, the men of the Kingdom all crossed themselves, and many of the Americans did as well.

Father Pietr turned then to the Americans. “Of the servants of evil, the dragon is among the most fearsome. The powers of darkness are their blood; their scales are armored with unholy power. Of all mortal beasts, no other is so strong; no other is so deadly. Rare is the warrior who by God’s grace finds the strength to slay the dragon. St. George of Holy Memory fought the dragon, and we pray to him to grant us protection in battle against all mortal enemies, of whom the dragon is supreme.”

“Yesterday, Captain Lewis was so blessed; he has joined that august company. We affirm what Heaven has already shown to be true.”

Prince Raimond stepped forward and spoke. Father Pietr translated for him, “Few battle the dragon and live. Fewer still battle the dragon and win. I will treasure this day in memory! This day I fought the dragon, and lived; this day my friend Thomas pierced the eye of the dragon!” He gestured to the priest to continue.

Father Pietr looked to Lewis and said, “The Prince and I have spoken with your lieutenant. What Prince Raimond wished first to do is contrary to your law. Your nation does not permit the granting of titles of nobility. But we have also learned that, sometimes, titles may be granted that are ‘honorary’. And be certain, Captain, we mean to honor you.”

The Prince spoke again. “We will ask you to swear no oath, ‘No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, And love the other; Or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.'”

“Captain Thomas Lewis, step forward!” Father Pietr leaned in toward Lewis and spoke softly, “The Prince will strike you. Do not flinch, do not cry out.”

The Prince spoke in Occitan. Father Pietr did not provide a translation. Prince Raimond removed the armored gauntlet from his right hand and handed it to the priestmonk. He stepped up and slapped Lewis full in the face. Lewis’ head snapped to the right. Fuck, that hurt! He stifled the urge to curse, and his tired legs almost betrayed him. He managed to remain standing, barely.

The other Americans yelled, unprepared and confused. The Prince raised his hand and shouted, “Quiet!” His voice echoed over the desert.

In the shocked silence that followed, Father Pietr explained, “Captain Thomas Lewis is now made knight. Among us, he shall be named Sir Thomas. His nation may regard as honorary this knighthood; but we know it to be true and right. And very real. Should he ever sojourn with us he shall have lands and titles to match his honor.

“Sir Thomas, you and your line will forever find in our kingdom honor and welcome.”

Lewis had no idea how to respond to that, none. He could only nod dumbly in response. The Prince embraced him, and shepherded him back to his place in line with his compatriots.

Father Pietr raised his voice again. “Sir Thomas was not alone in deeds of valor. Corporal Evans, as attested by his spotter, did slay with his rifle 106 goblins, 37 trolls and one giant. Corporal Coleman…

Over the next five minutes, the dazed and tired group of Americans found themselves with stinging cheeks and fresh knighthoods. Evans the sniper, Burke the giant killer, Coleman, Arp and van Buskirk looked to each other and their captain, bemused but proud. The simple ceremony had a power they couldn’t deny.

The Metropolitan said another brief blessing over the new-made knights, making the sign of the cross over each and giving each man a warm smile and a light touch on the shoulder. When the prelate had finished, Father Pietr again spoke, “There are others who would have been honored, did they remain among the living. But God in his Grace has called them, and they are asleep with the Lord. My lord the Prince has ordered that liturgies for the dead will be sung in perpetuity for their soul’s ease and in remembrance for their sacrifice. First among them in memory will be First Sergeant Michael Pethoukis, but all the names will be recorded, and prayers sung.”

***

Arp and Coleman helped the captain back, and van Buskirk dismissed them.

Lewis looked up at van Buskirk. “Sir Peter.”

“Sir Thomas.”

The two officers shared a brief smile. “What else is happening?”

“Clean up. When we sent word back to the non-combatants, I detailed some men to drive back to the city to see if they could scrounge some more trucks. Odo sent along a couple knights for muscle. Most of the baggage train is driving up here to load up all the shit we’re about to loot. I coordinated with Brogan; his men are stripping the goblins out his way, the crusaders are going to do most of the heavy lifting here, and we’ll provide cartage with the trucks.

“We need to drive Father Theodore over to the goblin HQ, he wants to check to see if there’s anything evil left he needs to step on. He’s not left yet.”

“Send Coleman with him, he can puzzle out Latin,” Lewis said.

“Right. What else? We’ve got observers on the cliff, what’s left of the enemy is running north as fast as their stubby legs can carry them. We’re trying to save as much goblin armor and weapons as we can. Everyone figures the troll armor is not going to be easily adapted for human use, so we’re ditching that. We’re throwing their weapons on the pile to get loaded when the trucks get up here.”

“What about the prisoners?” Lewis asked.

“142 goblins and a half-dozen trolls is it. Brogan’s taken them in hand; they’re disarmed and his MPs have them under guard.”

“Sounds good, Lieutenant. I’ll get with…”

Van Buskirk interrupted, “Sir, I’m beat to shit; but you look like you’re dead. Burke and I can manage. You rack out.”

Lewis wrestled with himself for a moment, but the fatigue and pain won. “Very well, lieutenant. Let me crash for a couple hours. Wake me when Brogan is on his way.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

***

Lewis woke on his own two hours later, needing to piss and unable to sleep any longer with the pain that knotted every muscle. He stretched and moaned, and decided to try and walk off the hurt.

The Humvees and buffalos still lit the shallow bowl at the top of the hill with their headlights. No one noticed he was awake and he watched his men. Many were sleeping, collapsed on the sand from exhaustion after the battle. Some still wore their armor, others had managed to get more comfortable.

The air was cold, but there was no wind and the night was rather comfortable. The moon had come up, shining down on their little camp with a familiar, silver glow. Things seemed almost normal as men tended to their kit and talked in low voices.

He struggled up the berm by the rocks at the northeast corner and looked out on the battlefield. The lights of the baggage train trucks were a lonely patch in the darkness out on the plain where men stripped the dead of their armor and weapons. If these goblins were like the others, there’d be a fair amount of gold and silver going into pockets, too.

The dragon was invisible in the darkness.

Another column of lights progressed slowly across the darkened field from the Snake River Brigade’s fortifications. Lewis looked down at his watch. That would be Brogan.

***

“Captain Lewis, I presume?”

“Colonel Brogan. Good to finally meet you, sir.”

The two men saluted. Lewis gestured toward the center of the hill where the lights of a MRAP lit a table and chairs. “Shall we adjourn to my office?”

Brogan seated himself and Lewis, Burke and van Buskirk joined him. Brogan affected a stern countenance. “I’m still pissed at you, Lewis.” He broke into a smile and continued, “But victory erases a multitude of sins. I just wish I could have joined in that mad ride. I’ve talked with your lieutenant van Buskirk here a bit already; but I want to hear from you, and I want to meet these crusaders of yours.”

“First things first, then. Colonel, obviously we need to get the fuck out of here as fast as we can. I think the circumstances that allowed us to win here are pretty… unique. Going up against these fuckers… it’s like three weeks ago imagining anyone in the world going up against us and our air power.

“The one thing that made it different here was Prince Raimond and his bag of tricks. Last we heard, the 4th ID got trashed on the way out of Iraq. There were three divisions in theater last week. How much is left now?”

Brogan grimaced. “We heard about the 4th ID, but we figured, hey, it’s the fucking 4th Infantry. They always find a way to fuck up. There was a lot of running around with our heads cut off like chickens at the start, but the mood in Kuwait was that as soon as we buckled up our shit, things would turn around.

“We left Kuwait three days ago. Higher was losing its shit, afraid that their one exit point was going to get flanked. Why they were concerned when all the good roads lead straight from Baghdad to Basrah is beyond me, but we were ordered to do a reconnaissance in force and ‘Secure the flank.'”

“We lost most of our comms the next day, from what van Buskirk said thanks to the goblins and their magicians getting close. There were more losses, and word was that the Air Force and Naval Air were getting hammered any time they stuck their noses out of their hangars.

“Since that pillar of fire nuked the magicians, we’ve had communication with CENTCOM in Kuwait City. The situation is getting worse. The 4th went down four days ago. The next day we lost half of 1st Cav, and the rest pulled back under fire. Yesterday most of the 1st Infantry and a shitload of other units got their asses handed to them. The survivors are still running to Kuwait. Two brigades of the 2nd and a grab-bag of other units west of Basrah is all that is between the advancing armies of darkness and Kuwait City.

“I pray that someone is trying to form a defense out of that bag of shit, but higher command is on the verge of gibbering.” Brogan paused and just stared into the darkness.

“That’s not good,” Lewis said. “It’s 525 km from here to Kuwait City. That’s a five-hour drive if we made highway speeds the whole way. Which we can’t because of the Crusader’s fucking horses.”

Brogan looked back to the other officers. “Can you convince them to leave them behind?”

“Not likely. We made it from Arar to here in two days. It’d take another two days to get to KC.”

“Kuwait City probably won’t be there in two days.”

“I know.”

***

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Continue on to Chapter Thirty-Six.

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