The trolls never slowed, never paused. They pressed the attack with a persistence that stunned Lewis, crawling over their own dead to fall on the swords of his Marines and their crusader allies.
Not without cost. Despite the remarkable strength and speed of the knights, the trolls were not so overmatched that their long axes did not make themselves felt. Disadvantaged as they were attacking uphill and over the blood-slick rampart of their own dead, they extracted payment for the blood. Lewis coldly observed Avery fall, his goblin-made helmet sundered by a troll halberd. Fagan’s team of air force mechanics, detailed to help the corpsman, pulled him bleeding from the line as an armored Marine of the second rank stepped forward to fill the gap.
Lewis’ perception of the battle became a kaleidoscope. It wasn’t seeing, not the way he had always thought of it. It was more like memory; faded snapshots of his men, crusaders and trolls impressed upon the surface of his mind; strobe-lit flashes of desperately engaged foes, blood and fear.
Lewis grunted as he cut a steel-clad halberd shaft in half, and grunted again in surprise as a bullet hole appeared on the side of the helmet with a “tink” he heard distinctly over the clamor. Thank you, Evans, he thought as the troll slumped to the ground.
He called upon his wider sight, and observed the forces arrayed against him. Goblins continued to debouch from the ramp onto the plain, unimpeded now that the 116th’s artillery was wholly devoted to desperately keeping the continual goblin assaults from sweeping over their lines. Each wave broke closer to the shore.
Van Buskirk, reinforced now with two lances of crusaders, held his line against the red goblins but his losses were mounting. A neat row of still forms grew in the hollow below the sandy berm he defended.
The main force of the enemy now oriented itself on the 116th. Regiments of goblins reformed from column to line and moved toward the Snake River Brigade. The black-clad blocks of armored warriors made a checkerboard as they marched toward Brogan’s embattled position. From the dispositions of the enemy forces, Lewis could see that their commander believed the forces already committed to Lewis’ hill were sufficient to ensure his defeat. The trolls and goblins already engaged were backed up with a stack of three more regiments of fresh goblins. Lewis’ hill was now a side show in the mind of the enemy.
Lewis calculated again. Like watching a simulation unfold in his mind’s eye, though not so simple; he wasn’t watching a computer game with map counters moving bloodlessly around on a monitor. This was a sense of possibilities; of choices made by him; or by the enemy. He watched enemy units move and die, and he saw Americans and crusaders count their own dead a hundred times, in a hundred different ways. It was a movie he could replay, and change, and measure.
It was no different in kind than the sort of analysis he made before any engagement; but impossibly detailed and somehow, more certain. Holy fuck, he thought; even if it’s the same sort of thing it’s the difference between chevette and corvette. Is this real? If I saw the things the sword is showing me, I’d reach the same conclusion. But damn, nowhere near so fast. And that conclusion was certain. He played the game again, weighing different options. Stand and deliver was no more than a slow ticket to defeat and ruin. There was no other way.
Lewis looked up. The motes of light, glittering but unshining, danced in agitated rhythm; rising up from behind him to meet their foe, the darting shadows of the powers mystically chained to the wills of the goblin summoners and bent on the destruction of the light and those who wielded it. For now, the light held back its enemy. But it wasn’t trying to defeat it, not yet. The light in its brightness was confounding the darkness, hiding other efforts. He sensed, dimly, that a barrier had been erected, thin and focused on a single purpose. The barrier stretched across the entire front, covering not just his position but also the cav on the other hill.
“Captain! Radio’s up! I’ve got Brogan, sir,” Chen shouted. Lewis dispatched a troll with a vicious slash that opened the breastplate like it was tin foil, though the shock ran up his arm and lanced pain into his shoulder.
“Raimond! Cover!” Lewis shouted. The Prince knocked back his troll opponent with a blow from his shield and sketched a spare salute with his sword. Lewis stepped back from the line. Private Johnston rushed forward from the second rank to take his place. He grabbed the radio from Chen with one hand and pushed back his helmet visor with the other.
The Sword still in his hand dripped blood. The drops of blood beaded for a moment, and then slowly dwindled into the sand. The world retained its flat affect, colors leeched away but every corner, every edge seemed impossibly sharp and clear. He squeezed the receiver as close to his armored ear as he could manage. “Colonel!”
“You need to move. Move now or perish,” Lewis’ voice was flat, compelling, almost monotone. Chen’s eyes widened, in surprise or reaction to the voice. Lewis wasn’t sure which.
“Aah… yes, sir. Captain…?” Brogan was having difficulty tracking.
“Colonel, I have seen what happens if we hold. You won’t like the ending. Listen…” Lewis explained his plan.
There was silence on the radio. After a moment, Brogan asked, “Are you fucking crazy? Lewis, your men are going to be ones with their dicks in the meat grinder.”
For the first time, some emotion leaked into his voice, “I know. You get mobile and make it worth our while.”
“Captain, I think I’ve got an idea.”
Lewis tossed the radio back to Chen. “Get Father Pietr. Now.” The private took off running. Odo was moving forward at the head of several lances of crusaders.
“Odo!” Lewis yelled, his voice carrying over the clamor of battle. The Strategos snapped his head when he heard and spurred his horse in Lewis’ direction. He slid from the saddle as Chen and Father Pietr came running over from the aid station by the MRAPs at the rear.
Lewis still held the sword in his hand. “Strategos Odo. Leave one more lance here. You will lead the rest of your men west. Loop around the hill and flank the trolls. You’ll be coming out of the sun, and they’re fully invested in their assault on us. Catch them unawares.”
Lewis pointed behind them, toward the trolls still pressing the line. “When the troll right starts to fold, angle left to the north and the ramp. The cav will sortie from their position, rolling the goblins up on the other side. Then push everything toward us here. We will be the anvil. You and the Snake River Brigade will be the hammer.”
Duke Odo’s eyes widened, and even Father Pietr looked surprised. “Are you mad?” Odo asked.
“If we stay here, we die,” Lewis said simply. “More goblins have moved up the ramp, in greater numbers than we feared. If we don’t regain the initiative, we’ll be fucked.”
“You have discussed this with his Highness?”
“No. I haven’t. Odo, you need to move now or it’ll be too late. The goblins are still getting their shit together on the plain. It won’t take them long. We have a narrow window. We need to hit them now, or you and your Prince will die,”
Lewis added philosophically, “We’ll all die.”
“Odo, go. Now.” Lewis said.
Odo sized up the situation, and took a long look at his prince. He nodded.
Lewis ran back to the line. Mortar shells flew over his head to land in the midst of of the trolls moving forward to take their turn in the assault. The machine guns on the corners rattled as they poured a constant stream of fire into the maelstrom. Private Johnston was hard-pressed despite the best efforts of the Prince and Baron Siegfried to protect him. He stabbed awkwardly at the troll before him and used his shield to fend off the troll’s halberd with desperate energy.
The troll hooked the blade of the halberd over Johnston’s shield, preparing to yank him off balance. Lewis took the axe head off the halberd with a back-hand slash and swept Johnston’s legs from under him. The private collapsed and Lewis leapt over him, the point of his sword finding a joint between shoulder and breastplate on the now disarmed troll as he lunged. The troll screamed in pain as Lewis twisted and removed the sword from its flesh. He recovered, thrust again and ended its pain.
He sensed Johnston scrabbling back and regaining his feet to take his place again in the second rank. The brief rest had tightened Lewis’ muscles and now every movement made him want to scream in agony. His arms and legs were on fire but the sword had no more mercy for him than it did for his foes. It drove on, killing with surgical precision no matter the pain Lewis felt.
Lewis gasped, and the pain lessened somewhat. He fought on and in his mind he watched behind him as Odo departed at the head of more than 400 of the crusader cavalry that the men on the line with him fully expected and were counting on to be their reinforcements. Watching the crusaders leave, Lewis felt a pang of doubt. With effort he pushed the sensation down. I want them behind me, need them, he thought. But I want to see tomorrow, too.
He weighed the rhythm of the fight, not with any special insight granted by the sword but with experience gained in a decade of combat in the crappier parts of the Middle East and elsewhere. The troll onslaught faltered. Lewis had the advantage of the defense, and the skill and power of the knights concentrated in a narrow front. The trolls could press but couldn’t break the line. With increasing desperation, they flung themselves at the hill, willing to sacrifice but not heedless of the cost.
His Marines were tiring. Their armor protected them but it wasn’t enchanted to sustain their endurance, and no matter how strong they were their muscles weren’t accustomed to the strain of combat with sword and shield. The fatigue and their lack of skill was killing them. Without the knights they never would have held this long.
Yet the dead at the bottom of the hill grew in number. The trolls died as fast as they came, but there was a limit to how many the enemy could push up the slope at once. Lewis looked out. His vantage point atop the low hill let him see that the goblins were filling the plain, even without the magical sight granted by the sword. Some marched toward him; but the bulk of them moved in ordered ranks toward the Snake River Brigade, the largest concentration of their enemy on the field.
The drums beat faster. The troll war cries, bass and hollow, echoed eerie and savage as the trolls pushed still harder. They took up a chant, almost a song but so simple it barely sounded like language, “Uu-uu-UU.”
Lewis had no time now for anything. Trolls pushing up the hill filled the narrow bands of his vision. They crowded together, so close that they’d have trouble wielding their great axes. Where skill and strength had failed, they meant to break the line by weight of numbers. The noise was ungodly. The metallic clamor of medieval combat overlaid the deeper, percussive sounds of industrial warfare. His helmet blocked only a little of the din.
Burke poured fire from the corner, heavy .50 cal machine guns dropping the occasional tango, and mortar rounds fell with an implacable regularity in the troll rear.
Lewis and the Prince faced the center of the troll assault. At the forefront were three monstrous trolls, the biggest he’d yet seen. Behind them came the regimental standard bearer, waving a black banner on a ten-foot long pike. Their legs were like tree trunks, and with the thickness of their armor they were like some industrial robot come nightmarishly to life. Fuck, he thought, Sarah Connor only had to deal with one Terminator. The Prince took the one on the right, Lewis and the Baron the other two. The troll facing the prince was skilled and strong and for a moment the Prince traded blows without gaining any advantage. Seeing an opening he lashed out, spearing the troll in the groin with his sword. The troll screamed; a deep, full-throated roar of anger and pain. Before the monster could react, Raimond followed with the edge of his shield, like Captain America, leaving a four-inch deep crease in its helmet. The troll slumped bonelessly to the ground.
Between the magic of their armor, and the mojo in Lewis sword, Siegfried and Lewis dropped their trolls. The standard bearer rushed on, leveling his pike at the Prince and the black banner dragged along the sand as he charged up the hill. Raimond braced and took the head of the pike on his shield. the shock of the impact bent the pike almost double before it snapped inches from where the troll grasped it. The standard bearer fell and the Prince stabbed once to the back of his neck. The Prince dropped his shield and took up the pike staff in his left hand. He waved it once over his head. He shouted and brought the staff down, breaking it over his knee and tossing the pieces onto the bloody sand.
Marines and crusaders joined in a wordless battle cry. Seeing their banner cast down, the last surviving trolls on the hill lost their spirit. In an instant, furious assault became confused retreat. The black-armored trolls stumbled over the ruined and bleeding corpses at the bottom of the hill as they withdrew from the fight.
The first assault was over.
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Continue on to Chapter Thirty.