It was too late. The giants lumbered into a full run. They looked as if they were running in molasses, but their long legs gave them great speed.
“Fuck!” Lewis shouted. He yelled into his radio, “Burke! Hit the giants! Hit the giants right fucking now!”
In seconds, they covered the distance to the crusaders. They raised their six-foot swords high and screamed a blood-curdling, ululating battle cry.
“I can’t get a shot!” said Burke.
The knights realized their danger. The men at the rear of the formation wheeled their horses and lowered their lances, but there was no room to charge. Horses screamed as the giants crashed into the knights.
The lead giant stood a head taller than the others and clad in jet-black, unadorned armor. The armor looked thick as tank armor but didn’t appear to slow the giant at all. The giant’s legs were shorter, proportionally, than a man’s and thick to support the massive weight of his thirteen foot-tall body. The short-seeming legs made the giant’s arms and torso seem long and thin, even encumbered as they were with thick steel armor.
With his off hand the giant backhanded a warhorse whose head came up only to his waist, sending it and its rider flying. He swung his sword at the hapless knight, hitting him square in the chest with the edge of the blade. The knight folded around the blade, but his enchanted armor was proof against the cut. The force of the mighty blow was enough to send him cartwheeling through the air a half-dozen yards. The giant watched the knight tumble for an instant. When his armored head turned back, it was like watching a tank turret rotate and lock on a target. He stepped forward once again.
The giants swung their mighty swords in deadly arcs. As the crusaders had done to the goblins, so the giants prepared to do unto the knights. Men-at-arms fell, their armor sundered by the giant blades. Blood soaked into the sand as the giants waded into the rear of the crusader formation. It looked like an army of men assaulting midgets on ponies as the giants cut their way toward the center.
Those knights not unhorsed in the first savage moments of the attack abandoned their horses. Lewis watched the long training of the knights come into play. Like the well-coordinated movements of one of his own fire teams, each lance immediately gathered on its leader. On foot as on horseback, the knight in his powered armor formed the tip of narrow wedge, with his squire to his left and the men of his lance forming the sides.
On the left, one knight in silver armor chased with black and a raven on his chest charged toward the black-armored giant. The giant raised his enormous sword, ready for a mighty swing. Ten feet away from the giant, the silver knight leapt into the air. His squire moved to flank speed and dove into a baseball slide aimed at the giant’s feet.
“Holy fuck!” Coleman cried. The knight swung his sword at the giant’s arm as he flew through the air a dozen feet off the ground. This was no mad leap; the strength imparted by his armor and years of training gave it a balletic grace. The knight spun, slowly, but the point of his sword never wavered. The giant seemed to react slowly, his size working against him as he tried to adjust his aim at the airborne knight.
But the appearance of slowness was an illusion. Though the knight was already inside the tip of the giant’s huge sword, the giant brushed aside the knight like he was a fly. The flat of the giant’s sword hit the knight in the side, sending him flying. He hit the sandy floor of the desert with a clatter and skidded a dozen feet or more. The knight spread his arms and legs and arrested his slide like a mountain climber sliding down a snow-covered mountain. He flipped himself up and was charging back in a fraction of second.
While the giant’s attention was drawn by the knight, the squire slid feet first through the giant’s legs, stabbing up with his sword as he passed. The giant threw his head back and howled; but he didn’t drop. His scream still echoing across the sand; the giant charged on, swinging his stupendous sword at the nearest enemy: the men-at-arms.
The regular soldiery didn’t have the knight’s powered armor. For them, the six-foot long sword was death itself. Propelled by a tree trunk arm as long as the soldiers were tall, it scythed through them as if they were no more than stalks of grain. The giant felled three with one mighty swing. The giant recovered from the swing with remarkable agility for one so large, and struck again. But momentarily distracted by the targets in front, he left himself open to the threat from behind.
Lewis watched with horrified fascination as from opposite sides the knight and the squire each took a running start and launched themselves; magically armored human missiles aimed at the back of the giant’s legs. Each hit a knee from behind, collapsing the giant like a marionette with his strings cut. He dropped, and before he could react one of the men at arms administered the coup de grace with a foot long dagger, driving the blade under his chin and into his brain. One giant down, Lewis thought.
Lewis quickly scanned. The rest of the fight wasn’t working so well. Though the giants had spread out when they hit Odo’s formation, they had quickly regrouped; all aimed at the Strategos in his black armor, desperately chivvying his men into formation and shouting orders.
The crusaders grabbed up lances and planted them butt first in the ground, like a pike hedge. But the hedge was too thin, and the giants plowed through. Spears shattered, sending shards of wood flying into the air. Lewis watched a man at arms lurch forward and fall when his lance broke, to be crushed by a size 50 armored boot.
The battle surged to the east, the knights falling back before the advancing giants, leaving dead and wounded behind them as they scrambled to mount a fighting withdrawal. Their horses scattered, abandoned in the chaos. After a seeming eternity, Odo’s efforts began to take hold. What had been the van of his attack on the goblins became the rear guard – common soldiers stiffened with a few squires, bows drawn and alert for attack by the goblins still on the field. The crusader’s arrows were as useless as Lewis’ M4 carbine against the massive armor of the giants, and were obviously better directed at targets they could kill.
The front facing the giants stiffened. More lances were laid down as a hedge, and the dense thicket of preternaturally sharp points finally succeeded in slowing, somewhat, the giant assault.
Having set his defenses, Odo moved to counter attack. Between the grimly holding hedge of lances and the rear guard, Odo had gathered at least thirty knights and squires. Seeing that the spear hedge was holding for the moment, he shouted a battle cry and ran north down the narrow corridor between the spear-hedge and the bowmen.
“Jesus!” Lewis said, amazed. Odo’s knights accelerated to highways speed in seconds, bounding across the sand in twenty foot leaps. From this distance, it looked like a movie playing on fast forward; not like anything he’d ever seen with his own eyes. The knights cleared the right flank of the spear hedge. The column raised a rooster tail of dust as they turned west, circling to hit the giants from the side.
The black-armored giant chieftain raised his eight-foot sword and pointed at the incoming crusaders. The giants recognized the threat, and shifted front to face the oncoming threat. There would be no surprise.
Odo, clearly visible in his black armor, leapt to the attack.
“Captain! More trouble!” Coleman called. Without dropping the binoculars from his eyes, he pointed.
“What now?” Lewis asked.
“Something moving up on the Prince, bigger than goblins.”
“I didn’t see any more giants, what the fuck…”
“They’re smaller than giants. Trolls?”
“I don’t care what the fuck they are, Coleman,” Lewis yelled. The captain paced back and forth, frustration evident in his every movement. Masked by the regiments of red-armored goblins, another regiment had moved to the front. Trolls or whatever they were, they charged through the gap between the two routed goblin regiments straight into the Prince’s flank.
“Not good,” Lewis muttered.
The newcomers advanced in tight formation, a solid block of armor moving at a quick march. Through the binoculars, Lewis saw their armor, heavy bronze-colored plates overlapping oddly as though the joints of the creatures weren’t set up like men. They bore large halberds like the Swiss guard carried in Rome; an axe and spear combined into one weapon, angled forward as they moved to assault.
Coleman dropped his binoculars and turned to Lewis. “I make it about five hundred, sir. Smaller than the goblin regiments. If anyone else shows up, we’re gonna need to buy a fucking program,” he said.
Lewis nodded grimly as he gazed out to the field of battle. The Prince, golden armor shining, reared his mount and pointed his sword to the rear. Toward Lewis’ position. Trumpets called, high and strangely beautiful over the low growl and crash of the battle. Fighting retreat, then, Lewis thought.
“Pethoukis! Company coming!”
The Prince’s men were still heavily invested in fighting the goblins, and this new element threatened to box them in. Without room to maneuver, a cavalry force can’t operate at full effectiveness, and the Prince was fast running out of room. The men on the Prince’s left flank set themselves ready for the trolls. The right flank needed to disengage from the goblins if they were to withdraw in good order.
Half the red-armored goblins were desperately trying to get away, dropping swords and consumed with panic from the knight’s first assault. But the other half were still fighting hard. Officers and their banner men waved their banners, desperately trying to regroup. And it was working, around these small nuclei of bravery goblins gathered and shook into line.
“They’re going to have to push the goblins back, to make room to withdraw,” Lewis said. Trumpets blared again, a different call. The Prince on his horse again pointed with his sword.
“Holy. shit,” Coleman breathed. Even expecting the attack, the sight of it was beyond anything he’d imagined.
A dozen knights took a running start and jumped, low and fast. They cleared the first rank of the reforming goblins, small movements of their arms and legs adjusting their balance as they flew. They landed as one, right in the midst of one of the largest pockets of coherent goblin resistance.
The jump alone was far beyond anything an unaided human could do. What happened next, Lewis never would have believed possible had he not seen it. Each knight slew a goblin as he landed, swords propelled through shields and armor by gravity and the strength given them by their magic armor.
Once on the ground, the knights became a blur. Moving so fast that Lewis could barely follow their movements, the crusader knights spun, twisting through goblins who appeared almost frozen in place by the inhuman speed of their attackers.
Swords reached out, blurred fans of silvered metal to Lewis’ eyes. The power behind the strikes made them seem effortless, yet every time blade intersected with goblin, blood and limbs flew. Lewis had once watched a bird sucked in to a jet engine with less violence.
The goblins screamed and died; unable to retreat, unable to fight back. The knights spiraled out, leaving a widening circle of blood-soaked devastation. A goblin officer trying to rally his troops lost both arms and then his head as a crusader passed him, dead with as little effort as a man swatting a fly.
But the knights were not invulnerable, not entirely. Without the men-at-arms to back them, their very speed left them open to attacks from the flanks and rear. Lewis watched as two knights went down, hit from behind by goblins passed over by the whirlwind of the knights’ advance.
Despite the losses, the toll of death was entirely lopsided. Lewis came to an awed realization that until this moment, the crusaders had been fighting cautiously, the knights in their powered armor working in concert with the men-at-arms they led. Most of the fighting he’d witnessed had been hammer and anvil, with the knights as the hammer. It was methodical and highly lethal with little risk to either the knights in their powered armor, or to the men at arms in their more pedestrian gear. It was in some respects oddly similar to the fire and maneuver tactics he used himself, where heavy fire from one element pinned down the enemy, while another element moved to attack.
Now, though, Jesus… Responding to the trumpet calls, the regular soldiers had gathered their horses toward the middle and tightened up their formation. The new formation was a defensive square, oblong really, Lewis noted. The crusader NCOs moved down the line followed by the banners; handing out curses and orders in equal numbers. They prepared to fight off any assault, and at the same time be ready to move as soon as a way was opened.
And that way was nearly open. The hole opened up by the berserker knights was small, but ragged. The trumpets rang out again, and the soldiers stepped off. The well-drilled men at arms didn’t have the raw power and speed of the knights, but working together they used spears and swords to gut and put down goblin stragglers with a cold efficiency. They cleared the room they needed to extricate themselves from the battle.
Extricate is such a bloodless term, Lewis thought. Not at all what’s happening here. The crusaders moved toward Lewis steadily, remorselessly, killing any goblin coming between them and their goal. The knights, now operating in pairs or threes, bounded along the flank, viciously attacking any group of red-armored foes who even looked like they were thinking of doing anything other than headlong flight. They left a trail of headless and limbless corpses in their wake.
“Ruthless!” Coleman breathed.
“We knew they could beat goblins. What about what’s behind them?” Lewis asked. The trolls had moved up with a ground-eating pace, chanting as they marched. Preposterously, it sounded almost like a Marine marching song, but sung in an impossibly deep bass voice.
Not knowing the strength of these new enemies, Lewis had no sense of what was going to happen next. What is the Prince going to do? He needs to push the trolls back, so that his men could reach the temporary safety of Lewis’ position. Lewis looked to the Prince. Stupid fucking question, he thought. Frontal attack, what the fuck else would he do?
“Pethoukis! Mortars on the trolls, now!” Seconds later, he heard the tonk of his mortars firing from behind. Black petaled roses of smoke detonated above the heads of the trolls. Unused to the explosive effect of earthly weaponry, they paused in their advance. Largely unharmed but disoriented; but that pause was all that the Prince needed.
Raimond launched himself at the trolls.
Head down, he accelerated. Covering yards with each bound, he closed the distance to the trolls; his royal guard arrayed in a wedge behind him.
“Jesus, he must be doing 50 or more!” Coleman said.
Dust swirled around the feet of the front rank of trolls, kicked up by their heavy tread. Each of them looked like a bronze-armored Hulk; blocky, massive and tall. They clashed their halberds on the breasts of their armor, and called out a guttural battle cry as the Prince and his guard rushed on. Raimond and his men looked the size of children approaching them despite most of them being over 6′ and fully armored. The wedge widened as they closed, as the trailing knights picked up their speed.
A dozen yards from the leading rank of the trolls, the Prince hurled himself into the air in a prodigious leap. He flew, shield foremost and visibly braced himself for the impact. With a crack that Lewis could hear even over the din of battle all over the plain, the Prince struck his target.
Despite its bulk, the troll dropped with the impact. The Prince tucked and rolled right over the collapsing troll, stabbing down with his sword as he passed. Raimond and the veteran warriors of the Royal guard lashed out at the trolls with staggering force.
The heavy armor of the trolls seemed to call for slightly different tactics. Where the knights had dispatched the goblins with blurring arcs of enchanted steel, here the Prince wielded his sword like a punch press. He spun lightly through the densely packed trolls, effortlessly dodging their blows. And then he would pause, coil up and lunge, driving his sword through helm and breastplate.
Within seconds, a dozen trolls lie dead or dying. But this was a spoiling attack, intended only to slow the trolls’ advance and give his men the time they needed to withdraw. Even with their enhanced armor, Lewis didn’t believe the knights could maintain that level of exertion for long. The infantry square, with the horses in the middle, stepped up their pace, marching toward Lewis as fast as they could manage and maintain order. The trumpet sounded again.
Raimond faced a troll easily a yard taller than him. The troll raised an enormous axe, winding up to strike the Prince. Before he could strike, Raimond blurred. Lewis couldn’t follow his movements; one second he was faced off against the axe-wielding troll, the next he stood inches from his breastplate with his sword poking out of the top of his helmet.
The Prince disengaged, yanking his sword down out of the dying troll’s skull. He and his guard had killed all the trolls they could reach, rocking the rest back in fear and shock. In that moment before they could begin to rally, the Prince called to his men. As quickly as they had advanced, now they retreated leaving the trolls to regroup.
The knights again raced across the sand, catching up to the main body in moments. The prince skidded to a stop like a skier, showering the rear guard in dust and sand. An orderly handed him the reins to his horse, and in a second he and his guard were mounted.
The Prince pointed with his sword, and they mounted knights became the new rear guard, launching volleys of arrows to join the renewed bombardment from Pethoukis’ mortars.
The crusaders marched at the quick time, passing windrows of red-armored goblin dead as they moved toward the low rise; followed, cautiously no doubt, by hundreds of very angry trolls.
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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Four.