The Last Battle
Tricornio, Three-horn, Trike. . . . – Triceratops horridus
– The Book of True Names
The Empire of Nuevaropa, Alemania, Prinzentum von Titanheim, Grafschaft von Augenfelsen:
Like a whole range of shadow mountains they appeared, resolving to terrible solidity through a gauze of mist and rain. Their great horned heads swung side to side. Behind neck-frills like round shields loomed fighting castles filled with archers.
“That tears it,” Rob Korrigan said as the phalanx of fifty monsters waded into the river from the northern bank three hundred meters away. Despite chill rain that streamed down his face and tickled in his short beard his heart soared. No Dinosaur Master could help being stirred by sight of these beasts, unique in the Empire of Nuevaropa: the Three-horns of Voyvod Karyl Bogomirskiy’s notorious White River Legion.
Even if they fought for the enemy.
“Impressive,” said the Princely Party billman who stood beside Rob on the south bank of the rain-gorged River Hassling. Like Rob he worked for the local ruler, the Count of Augenfelsen – “Eye-Cliffs” in a decent tongue – who commanded the Princely army’s right wing.
The mail-coated foot-slogger spat into grass all but beaten into the mud. “And so what? Our Dinosaur Knights will put paid to ’em, quick enough.”
“Are you out of your tiny mind?” Rob yelled, dancing from one short leg to another in fear and exaltation. He knew his Alemán was beastly, worse even than his Spañol, the Empire’s common speech. As if he cared. He suspected this job wasn’t going to last much longer, anyway. “The Princes’ Party had the war all its own way until the Emperor hired in these Slavos and their trikes. Three times the Princes have fought Karyl. Three times they’ve lost. Nobody’s defeated the White River Legion. Ever.”
He had to yell. The air was as dense with the screams of men and monsters, and a clangor like the biggest smithy on the planet called Paradise hard at work, as it was with rain and the stench of spilled blood and bowels. His guts still roiled and nape-hairs prickled from the side-effects of a distant terremoto: the war-hadrosaurs’ terrible battle cry. For a whole kilometer to the west battle raged on both banks and hip-deep in water transmuting slowly from runoff-brown to red.
Some small misunderstanding had arisen concerning an Alemán Elector, one of eleven who voted to confirm each new Emperor on the Fangèd Throne, who inconsiderately died without issue or named heir. Against precedent the current Emperor, Felipe, asserted a right to name a kinsman as new Elector. A number of powerful magnates, Alemanes with a few Franceses thrown in, had taken up arms in opposition as the Princes’ Party.
That was as much as Rob Korrigan knew about the matter, and more than he cared.
Of actual importance to him were the forces busily banging one another’s heads in this beastly downpour. Each side was drawn up in conventional wise, infantry massed in the center, heavy-armored riders, Dinosaur Knights and far more numerous chivalry, on either wing. Missile troops and sundry engines were strung along the front, exchanging long-distance grief.
As usual the Impies were outnumbered, perhaps eight thousand to six. But as Rob had told the House-soldier, change had come to the war in the North. Gone were the days when all King Johann of Alemania could field to defend the Imperial prerogative was a gaggle of grandes more concerned with squabbling over precedence and petty rivalries than winning. Only the technical mastery of Johann’s field commander, his younger brother Prinz Eugen, had kept a chain of defeats from leading to final disaster.
Also as usual the Princes’ infantry were mostly peasant levies – indifferently armed, worse trained, and none too happy at being forcibly haled from homes and fields to fight a war that could not possibly benefit them. But on this morning Eugen had for his center a tercio of 3000 Imperial heavy infantry: the terrible Brown Nodosaurs, élite pikemen and women augmented by a thousand arbalesters, skirmishers, and engineers. The Brown came from the browned iron of their sallet helmets, breastplates, greaves, and pike-heads. Nodosaur referred to a massive low-slung herbivorous dinosaur, famed for its bony armor carapace, the fearful spikes that jutted from its shoulders, and its total truculence.
Yet another set of illustrious new arrivals fronted the Imperial left wing, waiting behind the Legion for Karyl’s walking fortresses to work their execution: the Companions of Our Lady of the Mirror. On the face of it they weren’t much, a mere score or so of duckbill-mounted Knights-Brother, backed by 500 heavy-cavalry Ordinaries.
But the Companions were legend. A Order Military comprising the best and most beautiful young knights from Nuevaropa and beyond, devoted to the Creator Belle who ruled over the arts and beauty, they had won fame as much for creative gifts as for valor and matchless fighting skills. And for their love of one another, often expressed in the physical realm.
Their founder and Captain-General was Conde Jaume dels Flors, Nuevaropa’s most celebrated poet and bard, dashing, mad handsome, and charismatic. He was also the Emperor’s nephew. Rumor had him soon to be betrothed to Felipe’s daughter and heir Melodía.
It would have comforted Rob Korrigan to dismiss the Companions as a pack of spoiled pretty-boys led by a fruit of nepotism. Sadly he knew better – as a minstrel himself, as well as a Dinosaur Master. El Campeón Imperial wasn’t just Felipe’s favorite. He was in blunt fact the Empire’s greatest warrior.
All taken with all, Rob foresaw a long day. Me mither warned me I’d see Maris’s own many of those, he thought glumly.
A rain-squall fell open to reveal what stalked out ahead of the lumbering Three-horns: terror, long and lean, its whiplike tail swaying to the strides of powerful hind legs. Scarlet eyes surveyed the killing ground past hornlike projections on the snout. Dagger-toothed jaws opened to roar a challenge at the Princely Dinosaur Knights and men-at-arms waiting on the southern bank: “Shiraa!”
The billman cringed and made an apotropaic sign. “Mother Maia preserve us,” he said.
“See?” Rob said. He mirrored the other’s gesture. The Queen of the Creators wasn’t his Patroness. But a man could never be too sure.
Even Rob’s Dinosaur Master soul shriveled a little in instinctive fear of the twelve-meter monster, with her dark-brown stripes running down yellow sides to her belly. In his home isles of Anglaterra they called these beasts Slayer; in Spañol, Matador, which meant the same. In the Book of True Names, they were Allosaurus fragilis. By whatever name, they were terrifyingly lethal meat-eaters, and rejoiced to prey on men.
It was a rare thrill to see one as a war-mount. But then, the figure sitting astride the monster’s narrow back was a rare man. Looking no bigger than a child, he was armored only in a hornface-leather jack. His morion helmet lacked a visor, so that enemies as well as friends could see his lean clean-shaven face. Hero to some, devil to others, the mercenary Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirskiy had ridden straight from the pages of the storybooks to battle.
Compelling a sight as Shiraa and her master were, Rob’s eyes returned to the ranks of beasts trudging relentlessly behind them. The Three-horns were ten meters long, three high, and weighed ten tonnes apiece. Of all dinosaurs Rob loved and feared these most. Under the Voyvod’s skillful hand, Triceratops horridus ruled the modern battlefield.
The billman had his composure back. Water flew from his steel cap and Nosehorn-leather aventail as he shook his head and sneered.
“Peasant scum. Even riding those horned freaks they can’t withstand real knights. Young Duke Falk’s already chased the Impy right back to the north bank. Soon enough our rabble will overrun their pikes in the center. And there’s our victory, clean across.”
Glaring outrage that the man should forget that both of them were peasant scum, Rob said, “You think shit-foot conscripts can beat the Brown Nodosaurs? Even at three to one odds? Man, you’re crazier than if you imagine our duckbills can beat Voyvod Karyl.”
On a few occasions a tercio of Imperial Nodosaurs had died in place, to the last soldier. In half a millennium of upholding the Fangèd Throne they had never broken. Rob for one didn’t expect that to change today.
The billman sneered. “He never faced us before.”
“You really think that matters, then?”
“Five dólares say I do.”
I thought you’d never say that, Rob thought, smirking into his damp bronze beard.
From away to the right trumpets squealed, squelching his moment’s triumph. Their brazen voices summoned the Count’s Dinosaur Knights to mount. Which meant they summoned him.
Moaning like souls trapped by wiles of the Fae a cloud of arrows rose from the Three-horns’ fighting-castles. Voyvod Karyl, that many-faceted madman, had commissioned artisans in his home fief, the Misty March in Slavia, to discover treatments to keep bowstrings taut, and prevent the wicked-powerful hornbows from the arid Ovdan uplands from splitting apart and becoming useless in rain such as this.
“Shit!” Rob yelled.
A-boil with conflicting emotions, he turned and set off at the best run his bandy legs could muster. He clung to the haft of the bearded axe slung across his back to keep it from banging into his kidneys.
He didn’t forget to shout back at the soldier, “You’re on!”
The arrow-storm fell among the mercenary crossbowmen who lined the Hassling’s southern bank. Chisel-shaped steel tips pinned soft iron caps to heads and easily pierced orange and silver brigandines. Rob saw the sad little splashes the return volley made, fifty meters shy of the trikes. Recurved White River bows sorely outranged Princely arbalests.
That slow-motion avalanche of muscle, wrinkled grey hide, and two-meter horns capped with needle-filed steel had unnerved the Brabanter crossbowmen. Shiraa’s roars curdled their marrows, if the state of Rob’s own was any guide. Getting shot to shit with no Paradisiacal chance of even avenging their own miserable deaths was simply more than flesh could stand. Throwing away their slow-to-reload weapons the fronts ranks whipped ’round and bolted right into the faces of their comrades behind. Who pushed back.
The four stingers the Count had emplaced in pairs to either side of the mercenaries might have helped them. The wheeled ballistas outranged even horse-barbarian hornbows. Their iron bolts could drop the mightiest war-dinosaur with one good hit.
Sadly, in a typical bit of derring-do a handful of Companions had stripped Maia-naked and crossed the river before dawn. They slit the throats of the Count’s engineers and the sentries guarding them, alike blissfully asleep. They cut the stingers’ cords, busted their frames, and dragged their potent steel bows out into the Hassling with the artillerymen’s own Nosehorn teams. Then while Princely nobles were still sending House-shields to demand what in Old Hell the lowborn curs meant by disturbing their sleep with all that racket, the Companions swam back across, laughing like schoolboys, having lost never a man. Rob had got the story from an under-groom, who seemed equal parts disgusted and amused
A ballad took shape in Rob’s mind’s recesses as he slogging through well-churned mud, dodging huge heedless tails and stamping duckbill feet. The Dinosaur Knights’ hadrosaurs were herbivorous bipeds who could drop to smaller forelimbs to go on all fours. Unremitting rain dulled both glorious caparisons and the equally gaudy coloration the beasts were bred for.
Most were Long-Crested or Sackbut duckbills. Averaging nine and a half meters’ length and two and a half tonnes’ weight, Parasaurolophus had a triangular head with a blunt beak backed with grinding teeth. Its most distinctive feature named it: a long, tubular crest sweeping back from its head, which along with looking highly dramatic gave its voice the range and striking tones of the wind instrument called the sackbut. The beasts were notably high-strung – not the most desirable trait, from a Dinosaur Master’s viewpoint.
As Dinosaur Master it was Rob Korrigan’s job to keep his lord’s monsters fit, trained and ready for war. It was also his duty, in his eyes as well as his peers’, to advise his employer on how best to use his eye-poppingly expensive war-dinosaurs in battle. Without glad anticipation Rob was bent now on that latter task.
“I’d be tending to the Count’s own duckbill this bloody instant,” he bellowed to the rain, “if the bucketheads had the sense the Gods gave a Thunder-titan!”
But the Creators in their wisdom saw fit to endow the nobles who lorded over Nuevaropa with courage and strength instead. The bluebloods had curtly ordered Rob to get out of their way and leave their mounts’ final preparation to their squires. Who were themselves no more than bucketheads in larval form.
The air was ripe with dinosaur farts. Rob mostly managed to avoid abundant head-sized turds littering the mud flat by the riverbank. When the Augenfelsen contingent arrived at dusk the day before this was all head-high green grass. The beasts had chomped it low and trampled the remnants into the yellow soil.
Scampering around excited dinosaurs was chancy business at best. Along with accidental swatting or crushing came the risk some knight might deliberately ride him down for fun. Almost always commoners, Dinosaur Masters performed indispensable services for highborn employers who endured them as necessary evils. Their retainers, though, frequently failed to appreciate that Dinosaur Masters were anything more than uppity serfs.
But Rob was born sly. His mother’d sold him as a mere tad of fifteen to a one-legged Scocés Dinosaur Master. If he hadn’t made that up; at this remove he had trouble remembering. He’d surely come up wise in the ways of war-duckbills. And their buckethead owners.
Unsquashed Rob reached his employer just as the Count’s hapless arming squires were grunting to boost his bulk into the high-cantled saddle of his cerulean-dappled scarlet Sackbut bull. It was nearly two meters’ climb despite the animal squatting on its belly in the muck.
With a great groan of effort the Count flung his leg over. Middle-aged at eighty Paradise years, His Lordship spent far more time straddling a banquet-stool than a war-mount. It showed in the tendency of his chins to flow over the steel shoulders of his breast-and-back without apparent intervention of a neck.
Snorting from both ends the duckbill heaved himself to his feet. Rain sluiced down his sides. Rob counted it a blessing clouds and downpour muted both the animal’s hues and the Count’s armor, enameled all over in swirls of blue and gold and green – a pattern that the Anglysh, usually without affection, called paisley. They clashed something horrible.
“My Lord!” Rob shouted. He clutched at a stirrup. Then he danced back with a nimbleness that belied his barrel body and relatively short legs as the Count slashed at his face with a riding crop.
“Shit-eating peasant! You dare manhandle me?”
“Please, Graf!” Rob shouted, ignoring what he deemed an unproductive question whose answer his employer wouldn’t like anyway. “Let me try my plan while there’s still time.”
“You want to rob me and my knights of glory? I spit on your dishonorable schemes!” And he did. The gob caught Rob full on the cheek. “My knights will scatter these ungainly beasts like the overgrown Fatties they are.”
“But your splendid dinosaurs, Lord!” Rob cried, hopping from foot to foot in an ecstasy of consternation. “They’ll impale themselves on those monsters’ horns!”
Speaking of horns, the Count’s own mount had a steel chanfron protecting its face. An escutcheon with a spike all of fifteen centimeters long stuck out of the middle of it. Rob couldn’t keep from contrasting it with the Three-horns’ facial armament. It was not a happy comparison for his side, although it did seem appropriate to the Count, somehow. . .
Slamming shut the visor of his Fatty-snout bascinet – also oddly appropriate, thought Rob – the Count waved a steel gauntlet at his herald, who blew advance on his trumpet. Rob winced. The herald couldn’t hit his notes any better than the Count’s mercenary crossbowmen could hit the White River dinosaurs, much less the merciless archers in their howdah perches.
All around Rob barded duckbills lurched to a two-legged trot down the gentle slope to the river. Along with sackbuts went a leavening of Corythosaurus, a heavier duckbill whose tall, round head-crest resembled that of the helmet which gave it its common name: Morion. Wide-splayed rear toes gave the dinosaurs good purchase, so they did minimal slipping and skidding on slick mud. Which was good. As it was Rob had to step lively to avoid getting stepped on.
“You’ll just disorder your knights when you ride down your own crossbowmen, you stupid son of a bitch!” Rob shouted after his employer. Whom he was sure couldn’t actually hear him. Fairly.
Not that it’ll matter, he thought sourly, wiping spit and snot from his beard, given what the Voyvod’s about to do to you, good my Lord.
Despite the urgency that drummed at his ribs from within Rob could only stand and watch the drama play. Even rain-draggled, the feather crests, heraldic banners, and tasteless caparisons of a hundred Dinosaur Knights made a brave and gorgeous display. Too bad it’s a doomed one, he thought with imperfect sincerity.
The mercenary arbalesters had given off shooting. To Rob their only sensible course now was to run away at best speed: Dinosaur Masters and minstrels alike knew how little pay means to those too dead to spend it. Instead, insanely, the rear ranks now battled outright with their fleeing fellows. In truth the Brabanteses enjoyed a name as right pricks; members of a Torre Menor or Lesser Tower, hence marginalized, they sported a lap-dog’s pugnacity. Rob, who belonged to a whole cascade of minorities each less reputable than the last, would’ve been tempted to sympathize, had the matter struck him less stark.
The White River archers had likewise stopped loosing. Around both sides of the Three-horns trotted light riders, looking insignificant as mice beside the trikes. Rob recognized the green and white pennons of the famed Struthio Lancers, a mercenary Order Military of men and women consecrated to the Creator Maris, the Youngest Daughter. Picked for slight size and large skill, they were devoted to their deity, one another, and profit.
Instead of armor the Struthio Lancers relied on speed and agility to survive. They rode ponies and Nervous Striders. The latter, swift bipedal dinosaurs four and a half-meter long, were listed as Struthiomimus altus in The Book of True Names, hence the name.
Karyl employed the Lancers chiefly to defend against infantry getting in amongst his trikes and hamstringing them with hatchets and short, heavy hangers, to which his lumbering monsters were even more vulnerable than duckbills. With no such threat in the offing, they skirmished forward, their mounts churning fetid wakes, raking the milling crossbowmen with javelins and twist-darts. Some darted in to gash the mob with light lances and sabers, like Horrors harrying a crippled Nosehorn.
At last the Brabanters got their minds right. As one they turned. To see bearing down on them the whole enormous weight of their own employers’ right wing.
The Dinosaur Knights rode the crossbowmen down. As duckbills squashed their mercenary allies into screams and squelches and puffs of condensation, the Legion’s hornbow-men and women released a fresh arrow-smoke. Blowing silver whistles and waving banners, the Lancers swirled clear, back to guard the Three-horns’ flanks.
Buzzing like a million hornets the arrows struck the Augenfelseners. Tipped now with broad, barbed iron heads, they did little damage to the knights in their steel shells. But they stung thick duckbill hides. The wounded monsters’ fluting drowned the cries of riders tossed from their saddles and smashed underfoot. Already slowed by the hapless arbalesters, the Dinosaur Knights lost all forward momentum in a chaos of thrashing tails and rearing bodies.
Rob held up his right fist to salute the Count, a single digit upraised. It was, he reasoned, a sign holy to his Patroness the Creator Maris, after all.
Then he turned and scuttled off toward the west. His employer was a spent quarrel. Now he’d carry out his plan himself.
“Send him in,” the envoy heard a muffled voice say.
The servant in the royal blue and gold livery of Torre von Rundstedt held open the flap to the pavilion’s rear chamber. His mouth and nose were pinched, as if he smelled fresh dogshit. Which he did; the envoy had prepared for this meeting most carefully.
Hunched-over the envoy entered the room. It was large, five meters by seven, if sparsely furnished for an important nobleman’s bedchamber: a simple pallet, several chairs, a writing desk. A large painting rested on a stand near one wall, depicting a stout woman in a rose and pale-yellow gown with white hair piled atop her head. Two much younger women dressed in demure feather gorgets and skirts sat flanking her. Their appearance was undistinguished except for a fullness of the upper eyelids. Each cradled a white cat on her lap.
The strains of a string quartet floated through a silken screen painted in Eastern style, with Tree-topper titans browsing at gingkos while dragons flew overhead.
“You’ve returned,” said the man at the desk without audible pleasure.
Laying down a raptor-quill pen he turned. An elderly man of 117, he had close-cropped white hair that came to a widow’s peak, and a meticulous Imperial. His bright blue eyes had the same pronounced upper lids as the young women in the portrait, but with blue-black bags beneath. Even at his ease he wore steel breast-and-black, enameled midnight blue with almost invisibly fine traceries of gold. His sword in its scabbard leaned against the desk by his right hand.
The emissary bowed. “I bring the treaty from the Princes’ Party, Highness,” he said.
Had it not been for the hunchback he would have been notably tall. His Springer-leather tunic hung open over a grimy leather loincloth and well-holed turn-shoes. Greasy hair of indeterminate color framed a face round without a pinch of fat, a raptor-beak nose, and a patch over his left eye, crusty as a scab.
He’d worked to achieve so appalling an appearance. Not hard, mind.
Prinz-Marschall Eugen von Rundstedt, brother to the Alemán King and commander of Imperial forces in the North, rose. He stood a third-meter shorter than the envoy, but his back was pikestaff straight.
He took a step forward, then halted. From his expression the smell of dung had hit him, along with the savor of clothing well marinated in a sauce of dirt, sweat, body oils, and exudations even less appealing.
As a rule, the emissary preferred to be feared. That wasn’t going to happen here. With bluebloods he found repulsing them served almost as well.
A peasant, he had no rights a noble need respect. Though open opposition would only get him pulled apart by dray-dinosaurs, his hunger for redress burned his belly like coals. So he had mastered the art of servile defiance.
He was Bergdahl, and one of few bad men who knew they were.
Visibly overcoming disgust, the Prince held out a hand pale and elegant despite the unmistakable calluses of a century spent gripping a swordhilt.
“Give it to me,” he said.
But the envoy held the wax-sealed scroll back like a child playing a spiteful game. He grinned at the anger that flashed across the old nobleman’s face.
“My masters have a final stipulation, Highness.”
“Out of the question!” von Rundstedt snapped, a beat too late for belief. “If they’re looking to change our agreement, let them suffer! Between the Voyvod Karyl and his monsters, Count Jaume’s Companions, and the Imperial Nodosaurs, I have the force – ”
He raised a hand and made it a fist. “ – to crush them.”
The envoy made a dumbshow of applauding with huge crack-nailed hands. “Most spirited, Highness,” he said. “If you’ll check the special orders you keep locked in that secret drawer in your writing-desk, you’ll see that the Emperor himself has agreed to this condition.”
Copyright ©2011 by Victor Milán
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