Herzer was just getting out of his blankets in the predawn cold when Bast came striding back into the camp, obviously straight from a bath in the river; her hair was just starting to dry and her nipples were standing out so hard they were dimpling the leather of her halter-top.
"How come you were complaining about cold when you run around in a bikini all the time?" he asked, grumpily. He was sore in some very odd places; Bast had a grip like a vise and she sometimes forgot her own strength.
"I'm more or less immune to heat and cold," she admitted with a grin. "It doesn't mean I have to like it."
"So why do you run around in a bikini instead of something warmer?" he asked, perplexed.
"Do you know how many men I've killed who froze looking at my tits?" she asked, laughing merrily.
"Breakfast is on," Cruz said, walking past. "Bacon and eggs! New bread from town!"
"Sounds good," Herzer said, putting on his armor and checking that his sword was loose in its sheath. Their helmets were stacked on their crossed pilums and for the time being his could stay there.
Bast walked with him to the chow line and got only bread, then looked over at Edmund in the torchlight. "They're still where they stopped last night, about a kilometer and a half south," she said. "They weren't stirring yet when I left."
"Good," Edmund said, getting a full plate. "Thank you for checking."
"I thought someone should," she replied.
"There's a team of cavalry down the road," Edmund said.
"I know, I saw them as well," Bast chuckled, taking a bite of the bread and looking up at the stars in the clear sky. "It's a good day for battle. It will start cool but then get quite warm."
"You'll take a place with the archers?" Talbot asked, leading the group over to a large stump.
"Oh, yes, not for me the armored clash," she smiled. "I'll fill them so full they won't realize they're dead. I dislike these Changed intensely."
"I doubt it was their choice," Herzer said, sitting on the ground.
"No, but I still don't like them," she said fiercely. "They have slaves in the pack trains. You must rescue them, Edmund."
"First we have to win," Edmund pointed out. "We're sort of outnumbered."
"I'll take my quota," Bast said with a shrug. "Methinks I'll go find a good spot." With that she walked off into the darkness, whistling and occasionally spinning in place in dance.
"I'm glad she's so happy," Herzer said.
"She's like that," Edmund shrugged. "Battle is what she was bred for and she's just about as good at it as any elf I've ever met."
"We might have to retreat," Herzer said, looking at the defenses. "I hope not."
"I've got that covered," Edmund replied. "The militia is going to get to work today on fall-back positions for the archers. I've had extra pilums brought up as well and stashes placed along the way." He looked up at the sky and nodded. "Get your troops into position and down. It's getting on for dawn."
For much of the rest of the morning, Herzer and the Blood Lords remained crouched in the parapets. As Bast had predicted the morning cool had quickly been dispelled by the rising sun and by the time the mutters of the militia indicated that the enemy was in sight it was nearly noon and rising to a summer heat. He could see from his position the three horse scouts climb up the trail and then down, but he was out of sight of the enemy and vice versa.
Edmund walked over to his position and, without looking down, shielded his eyes and frowned. "What a gaggle."
"How's it look?" Herzer asked.
"They're all in a group. I think he's learning the term 'defeat in detail,' which means he'll try to rush us with the whole force. Ah, here he comes."
"As you can see, I'm waving a parley flag," McCanoc's ironic voice drifted up from beyond the low wall.
"I doubt you'd honor it in return," Edmund called. "But that's the difference between us. Are you surrendering this time? Tell you what, I'll guarantee that you are permitted to live and I'll even throw in not having you tortured every day for the rest of your miserable existence. All you have to do is disarm your force and have it stand down to be taken prisoner."
"You're so funny, Edmund Talbot!" McCanoc called. "I'll counter your offer. Send us out a shipment of tribute and we'll go back the way we came. Say, two tons of wheat and the same of corn and all the jewelry and other geegaws of the town."
"And you'd leave us alone from hence forward?" Edmund asked as if he was considering it.
"Well, not exactly," McCanoc replied. "Say, a quarterly payment. Oh, and we'd need some young ladies as well. Where you get them is up to you; remember you could always raid the other towns in your area for the tribute."
"Yes, very good point," Edmund said. "We could be senselessly destructive bastards just like you. But I think not. Last chance; surrender and I'll let you live. Your . . . men we'll have to consider."
"No, I don't think so," Dionys replied, venom in his voice. "Let me tell you what I'm going to do. First, I'm going to wipe out this pitiful militia. Your stupid Blood Lords and archers are still marching over here, aren't they? So all you have is this rabble militia, a bunch of has-been reenactors who can't handle reality so they hide in fantasy. Much good they'll do you against my army. And when they are gone, Edmund Talbot, I'm going to capture you. And the last thing that you'll see, before I have your eyes burned out, is me raping your daughter, the first of a long line of my men.
"Daneh, however, I will spare. I understand she is with child," he added delightedly. "I assuredly cannot kill my firstborn. After it is birthed, though, it may be different. And I understand that women can continue to have sex during pregnancy. Especially if it's up the ass!"
Edmund had listened to the diatribe in perfect calm and his voice retained it. "Is that all?"
"Isn't that enough?"
"Only for an amateur," Edmund sighed loudly enough to be heard all along the line. "It's so hard to find qualified opponents these days," he added in a mutter. The baron lowered his visor and lifted his hammer to the figure in black plate. "Are you going to spend all day talking? Because I'm going to give you five minutes to get out of bowshot. That's part of this whole 'parley' thing, too."
"Does she dream of me?" McCanoc shouted angrily. "Does she dream of me on top of her, Edmund, when you are holding her in her nightmares?!"
"Not anymore," Edmund called in a bored tone. "Frankly, Dionys, she's pretty much gotten it out of her system. Other important things to do. Sorry. Four minutes."
Herzer couldn't see what McCanoc was doing but from the injured squeal of the horse he guessed that Dionys had reined it around sharply.
"It's so hard to get good opponents," Edmund sighed.
"I think this force is just about good enough, Baron," one of the militiamen said. "As opponents I mean."
"Really? You call that taunting? I've heard better taunting from children. I was half expecting him to say 'neener, neener, neener.' That's the quality of taunting you get these days."
"Great," Cruz muttered. "Somebody want to tell me what's happening?"
"He's gone back to his force and is exhorting them," Edmund said. "Probably about as well as he was taunting me, from the looks on their faces. They don't like this one bit. Now he's riding around behind them. That's where he's got his men-at-arms, too, probably to make sure the Changed keep going. And now, they're moving forward. Right down the road. Blood Lords, archers, stand by!"
"When are you going to have us stand up?" Herzer asked.
"When they're in pilum range," Edmund replied. "I can't believe he didn't put me together with you guys. For the stupidity of our foes, may we always be thankful."
"Probably thought you rode ahead," Herzer said, listening to the approaching force. Their feet could be felt pounding the ground and there was a deep-toned continuous wah-wah-wah from them. "I wouldn't have believed we could march that fast, either, especially with the archers."
"Keep those pilums down!" Edmund called.
"Squat in your positions," Herzer added as some of the militia archers started firing their short bows. He could hear the sharper notes of Bast's bow as well and was fairly sure that each of the hissing shafts had found its mark from the occasional scream in the distance. "Pilums across your knees, shields leaning against the wall."
"Wait for it!" Talbot called, swinging his hammer idly in one hand. "Wait for it . . ."
"So, where are you going on your holidays?" Cruz asked the air.
"UP AND AT 'EM!"
Herzer stood up and in one smooth motion drove the pilum outward into the first shield he saw. The missile penetrated the shield, and the orc that had been carrying it was suddenly burdened by an additional weight out on a long shaft. He stopped to struggle with the weapon and an arrow took him in the throat.
Herzer hadn't really seen the by-play since he stooped to pick up one of the additional pilums at his feet and drove it, in turn, into a shield, then drew his sword and settled down to the serious business of survival.
The orcs came in wave after wave, most of them shredded by arrow fire before they could ever reach the defenses. The militia had fallen back, leaving a double line of the Blood Lords across the narrow strip of road, and although the orcs crashed into the line again and again, they could neither push it back nor run it over. They first had to clamber up the parapet and then face the shields of the Blood Lords with their swords licking out to rend faces, arms, bodies. Even if they made it into or through the first line, the second was there to finish them off as the unfortunate orcs ran into a threshing machine of stabbing swords from the front, back and sides.
A few managed to make it all the way through that, only to face a wall of polearms wielded by the infantry. These weapons, most of them axelike halberds, quickly chopped any survivors into gobs.
Herzer hadn't been able to follow the ebb and flow of the fight, but he could tell when the orcs finally started to break. They had three times faced the Blood Lords and on each occasion they had been chopped to bits. Now, in the face of the defenses and the steady line of legionnaires and the air filled with arrows, they could face it no more. First singly, then in groups, then enmasse they streamed back down the hill. Those that survived.
As the last orc fell back from the parapet, Herzer was able to look around. There were dead Changed everywhere, on the parapet, in the trench and in piles in front of the wall. There were some familiar faces missing as well and he vaguely recalled someone filling in the gap next to him. He looked to his right and instead of the accustomed Deann it was Pedersen, the third decuri leader.
"Deann?" he gasped, lowering his sword and reaching for his hip flask for a drink of water.
"Hit bad," Pedersen replied. "They took her back to the aid station."
"Where's the baron?" he asked, looking around.
"Group of orcs are trying to flank us down by the river," Stahl replied. "He rode down there to cut them off."
"Shit," was all he said, looking down the hill. McCanoc was reining his horse back and forth furiously and then finally pointed it up the hill and started to charge.
"Look at that dumb bastard," Herzer muttered, finishing off his water and pulling out a rag to wipe his blood-covered sword. "I bet he doesn't make it five meters past the first range mark."
"I dunno," Cruz said from his left. "He's running pretty fast. What are you betting?"
"Never mind," Herzer said, dropping the cloth. He had heard the twang of Bast's arrow and had seen it fly straight and true. And bounce off something in mid air. "I think we're in trouble."
More arrows flew through the air and the massive horse first faltered and then fell on its side, legs kicking in agony as it squealed in pain. But the figure in black armor hit the ground lightly, as if supported, and leapt to his feet, charging forward and bellowing incoherently. As he did a mist seemed to form around him, a black cloud that reached out to the wounded on either side, and where he passed they twitched and groaned no more.
When McCanoc reached the parapet he leapt into the air, an impossible, obviously enhanced leap that carried him well above the parapet and onto the ground beyond. He was wielding a two-handed sword as if it was a feather, and as he swept it from side to side the blade clove through heavy wooden shields and steel armor as if they were cloth.
In a moment, Herzer saw a half a dozen of the second rank of the Blood Lords fall and he charged forward, screaming, to slam into the back of his much larger opponent.
Dionys wasn't even rocked by the blow, but he spun around as a power field cast Herzer back with a shower of sparks. Herzer found himself enmeshed in a black cloud and he could feel his strength slipping away from whatever program was running the nannite cloud.
"Well, if it isn't my old buddy, Herzer," Dionys said raising his sword. "Time to learn the penalty of betrayal."
Dionys stabbed downward but Herzer was already on his feet with a back roll he would forever afterwards find impossible. He had dropped his shield and as the blade swept down he parried it despairingly only to have his sword lopped off just above the guard. He backpedaled and picked up one of the spare pilums but Dionys leapt the distance between them and slashed downwards just as he was raising it. The power blade swept around, cleaving through the pilum and taking off most of Herzer's left hand with it.
Herzer stumbled backwards clutching at his wrist and snarling. "You're going down, Dionys," he said. But he could feel the black cloud sucking his strength away as he said it and his vision was going gray.
"What are you going to do, bleed on me?" Dionys asked, just as a white maelstrom landed on his back.
Azure had been watching the battle with interest. He didn't really feel he had a side in it, but his humans were certainly having fun and tearing big strips of fur off their opponents. But something about the black figure struck a cord and when the air brought the scent of him to the cat, he recognized someone with whom there was a score to settle.
The power field apparently didn't recognize that claws could kill and it had no effect upon the enraged feline. The sixty-kilo cat landed on the back of Dionys' armor and scrabbled at it, hissing and spitting.
Dionys spun around but the cat had hooked his top claws into the armor's chinks and was raking for all he was worth. And no matter how McCanoc writhed he could not dislodge the house lion.
Azure, however, did not like the black cloud one bit. It was making him think of going and lying in the sun to sleep it off. Finally, the cat gave up. The armor was proof against his claws and the cloud, ill-tuned as it was to the biology of a feline, was making inroads on his strength. Finally, with a yowl of disappointment, the cat disengaged.
Dionys took a swipe at the white figure as it ran off but missed and turned back to Herzer, just as the boy launched himself through the air. He had watched Azure's attack and recognized that the power field did not recognize a body within its reach. Despite the pain of his hand and the weakness caused by the cloud he threw himself on Dionys' shield arm, clasping McCanoc around the waist with his legs and trying to work a dagger into the chink between his cuirass and gorget.
Dionys let out a bellow of anger, shook himself again, stabbing with his sword and trying to rid himself of Herzer. But when he felt the dig of the dagger on the cloth under the armor he threw himself on the ground, slamming Herzer on his back and driving all the air from his lungs.
Herzer found himself on the ground, totally spent. The cloud had seeped the strength from his body and the impact of Dionys on him was the last straw. He felt ribs crack under his opponent's weight and his dagger flew out of nerveless fingers. As Dionys scrambled to his feet he tried to stand up, roll, anything, but all he could do was lie on the ground and await his fate.
"That's it," Dionys muttered, stumbling to his feet and lifting his sword. "I'm tired of you, Herzer." He raised the sword again, point downward and prepared to thrust just as a saber slashed out from the side and struck his armor in a shower of sparks.
Dionys spun in place and cut back, fast and hard, only to have Bast avoid the blow with a laugh. "You'll have to do better than that," she said, dancing backwards. "Nobody roughs up my pretty-boy and gets away with it."
"Will you people just give up?" Dionys shouted and leapt forward but wherever he slashed the elf was never there, dancing in with a merry chuckle and raking her sword along his armor. "Faster, Dionys McCanoc, faster," she said. "You need to learn the dance."
And, indeed, it was a dance she led him as McCanoc furiously chased her around the encampment. Occasionally someone else would attempt to intervene but none of their weapons could pierce the power shield around his armor and Bast laughingly waved them off as blow after blow fell upon his plate. But though she could pierce the power field, she could make not a dent in the armor and after a while there was nothing but the grunting of the giant plate-armored figure and the laughter of the elf. The militia had at first fallen back but now moved forward, watching the swordplay and commenting on it. They were careful, however, to stay far outside the range of the black cloud around McCanoc that seemed to have no effect on the elf.
Herzer found himself lifted to a sitting position by Rachel who frowned at his hand. "This is a right mess," she said, waving at some stretcher bearers.
Herzer shook his head as they approached. "I want to see," he said.
"Okay," she sighed, wrapping his mangled hand in a bandage. "We'll wait. But I think we're all doomed. Bast can't get through his armor and all he needs is one lucky blow. Oh, hell."
"Bast," Edmund said, stepping to the edge of the duel. "Feel like tagging out?"
Herzer didn't know where he'd come from; it was as if he'd just appeared. The boy wasn't sure what the old warrior was going to do against the nannite cloud and the much larger McCanoc, but having him there was comforting.
"Not . . . yet," she replied. The elf, for all her stamina, was slowing down and McCanoc seemed to have unlimited reserves of energy.
"I'm going to kill you," Dionys said, panting. "Then all the rest of you. Rape Daneh again, rape that bitch daughter, rape your still warm corpse."
"I don't think so," Bast gasped but as she said it her foot turned on a stone. She tried to turn the slip into a cartwheel but Dionys darted forward, his sword licking out, and caught her on the upper thigh. As the bright blue blood spilled out on the ground he raised the sword up, point downward, for a killing thrust.
"My turn," Edmund said, stepping forward to interpose his shield as Bast scrambled backwards. Some of the militia grabbed her and drew her back into their midst, shielding her from McCanoc's view.
"Now you, old man?" Dionys said, stepping back and laughing. "Don't you people give up? My orcs will be up here before long and your damned 'Blood Lord' pussies aren't going to be able to stop them with me in their midst."
"I see you kenned some armor," Talbot replied calmly, hefting his hammer.
"Kenned hell, Fukyama could see a good deal when it was presented to him," McCanoc replied, lifting his visor for a moment. He was far enough back that the cloud barely reached Talbot but he appeared puzzled that it didn't seem to have any effect. The cloud seemed to be hovering just a short distance from the baron's armor as if it was afraid to touch it. He looked at it questioningly for a moment and then dropped his visor, dropping into a guard position.
"You can't defeat me, either, 'Baron' Edmund," he said, stepping forward carefully and jabbing at Edmund with his sword. The hypersharp weapon struck Edmund's shield but the baron turned the blow aside, letting the point slither off the metal surface.
"No weapon is proof against my armor," McCanoc continued, circling his smaller opponent. "My blade will go right through your armor and my cloud will kill you even if my blade doesn't. Nice, isn't it? It's a medical protocol that Chansa gifted me with. Your wife will like it, I think. Perhaps I'll feed her to it, after our child is born. You are going to die, here, Edmund Talbot."
"I think not," the baron replied, sighing. "Taunting, taunting, taunting. I halfway expect you to say 'neener neener.' So far your cloud doesn't appear to be working." He turned aside another blow lightly and stepped to the side, holding his hammer at the ready. "And, you know, Dionys, you really aren't very good at taunting."
"D'you think you can do better?" Dionys snapped, leaping forward and driving a blow against Talbot's shield. This time, Talbot caught the blow full against it and the sword rang as it was stopped by the metal of the shield.
"Oh, yes," Edmund replied. "What? You don't think I'd have standard armor, do you? I'm a master-smith. Of course it's power-armor you twit! As to taunting . . . Try this." He thought for a moment then cleared his throat.
"Dionys, thou art a coward. Sooth doth thou send others before thee and refrain from the strife thyself. Thou strikest women yet shirk to strike a man, lest thy pustulent skin be cut by a blade fairer than thy own. Sooth, thou art a coward, McCanoc."
"What?" Dionys shouted, slamming another blow into the shield. Edmund turned it aside as if it was of no importance and continued.
"Dionys, thou art a braggart. Braggart thou art for nought, for in every contest thou art defeated. Fighter of weaklings and braggarts like thyself, whensoever a true knight face thee, thou runs away. Yet, in sooth, from this cowardly retreat dost thou make brag. McCanoc, thou art a braggart."
Herzer watched in amazement as the smith started to dance around his much larger opponent, taking blow after blow unfazed and practically singing his taunts as Dionys began slamming out blows in naked fury.
"Dionys, thou art smelly. Thy breath stinks of the rotten ejacula of horses, which, sooth, thou dost love as thy morning drink. Thy body reeks with the stench of fear, and the manure of asparagus-eating goats is better than the smell from thy mustache. McCanoc, thou art a stinker."
At this Dionys let out a bellow like none before and began chasing Edmund around the defile. Others got out of their way, laughing now at Edmund's taunts. Despite McCanoc's size he could never seem to catch the smith.
"Dionys, thou art ugly. Thy orcs doth not run forward to the fight, but away from thy countenance. Sooth, in the history of the ill-favored, thy name is held in high esteem. Thy whore mother screamed at first sight of thee as the replicator burst open of its own accord in horror. The ill-fortuned persons that were forced to care for thee had to put a pork chop around thy neck to get the dog to play with thee. Further, sooth, when it did, it mistook thy ass for thy face and preferred it to lick. McCanoc, thou art ugly.
"Dionys, thou art stupid. Thrice hast thou attacked us and thrice have we thrown thee back, though we be but, forsooth, a fraction of thy number. Thou art unlettered and hath never read of the term 'defeat in detail,' for, assuredly, but those few letters would require all day and the use of both of your pustulent forefingers. But the veriest simpleton canst understand that thine tactics are those of a school-yard bully held back until his tutors at last release him as a man full grown yet unable to manage fingerpainting. The very fact that thou canst breathe must be by the arts of some homunculi or hob, smarter than thou, who doth sit upon thy shoulder and whisper in thy ear, 'breathe in, breathe out' else surely thou wouldst cease in this vital activity for lack of thought. Canst thou walk and chew bubble gum at the same time it is asked and I cry 'Nay' for I have found you, face down, the bubble gum before you upon the ground as proof.
"McCanoc, thou art stupid."
"And that," he finished taking another blow on the shield and stopping his dance, "is how a professional insults someone! Now, go away, or I'll start in on Arabic you miserable mound of gelatinous pus!"
Herzer wished that he could see Dionys' face; he figured he was just about to have a stroke. His voice was hoarse and it sounded almost as if he was crying.
"You're going to pay for that Edmund Talbot!" McCanoc yelled, slamming his own shield into Edmund's and then striking with his sword. Edmund turned both attacks with almost contemptuous ease and slapped the sword blade aside with his hammer. Herzer noticed that while McCanoc was winded, Edmund appeared as fresh as when the contest had started.
"And that is such a comeback," Talbot sighed, hefting his hammer. "Do you know why it doesn't bother me when people taunt me with the name Edmund?"
"No," Dionys said, stepping forward until the black cloud enveloped the smith. "And I don't care. I'm going to kill you."
"It's because it's not my name," Talbot replied, softly. "It's the name of my brother, who died in Anarchia. He went there like a lot of young men used to go, to try to find some true competition in this world. And, like most, he fell victim to the anarchy that it is named after, killed in some pointless skirmish. I didn't know that at the time, so I followed him in. It took me years to determine his fate. Years in which, in searching for my brother, I found what I thought was my destiny."
His voice had gone cold and hard and even McCanoc had stopped, awed by some depth he couldn't understand, hidden in the simple tones of the smith.
"My name, is Charles," Talbot snarled at last, and as he did he was enwrapped in a blue glow that drove back the cloud in flashes of silver light. "And you, Dionys, are about to find out why I am called THE HAMMER!"
The hammer slashed forward faster than the eye could follow, faster even than Bast's lightning sword blows and Dionys was smashed backwards in a blast of sparks. His shield was shattered and he tossed it off with a cry, cradling his arm as the smith advanced.
"King of Anarchia you wished to be, right?" Talbot said, catching Dionys' wild swing on his shield and shedding the power blade as if it were a zephyr of wind. "Wanted to destroy all of my good work, did you?" he continued, slamming the hammer into Dionys' shoulder and casting him backwards in another blast of blue sparks. "Want to take over my town, do you?" he asked, hammering McCanoc's sword arm as his opponent took another wild swing. The sword sailed harmlessly away as Talbot stepped forward relentlessly, pressing the much larger fighter up against the edge of the road cut. "Raped my wife, did you?" Edmund said, fury in his voice as Dionys ducked his head and charged. "Kill her just like bastards like you killed my brother?"
Edmund stepped easily aside and laid the hammer across the back of McCanoc's helmet with another shower of sparks that made the hammer ring like a bell. The black-armored figure was left stretched in the dust and Edmund raised the hammer over his head for a killing blow. "I don't think so."
"Edmund!" Sheida called from above. The battlefield was suddenly shadowed as a flight of wyverns, each with a lance-wielding rider on its back, landed on the hills. "Don't!" She dismounted and scrambled to the ground, waving at him frantically as her lizard flew down ahead of her. "Damnit, even if we didn't need him, you can't kill him that way!"
Harry was on one of the wyverns as well and waved a sardonic salute at Edmund before the flight took off down the valley. The orcs had, indeed, been reforming for another assault but as the dragons swept down on them they scattered for the trees. The wyverns passed on and from down the valley came frantic neighing from the pack train as the beasts flew over.
Edmund flexed his hand on the hammer and looked up at the council member angrily. Finally, he nodded curtly, then raised the hammer over his head and brought it down on the small of Dionys' back instead of his head.
"Fine," he snarled. "I never said I'd let him walk again. Or use his dick."
Sheida shook her head angrily and climbed down from the heights, running to McCanoc. As she approached she lifted a hand and concentrated for a moment until the black cloud settled and dissipated into dust. She then ran her hand down McCanoc's back, looking inward and rocked back on her heels.
"That was a pretty precisely calculated blow," she said, looking up at Edmund.
"Yeah, wasn't it," he replied. "And if you fix it, all bets are off." He turned to Herzer and shook his head at his hand, and the downed Blood Lords scattered around the recumbent figure. "Sorry about that. I guess I should have sent you guys to deal with the orcs. Nobody's perfect."
Azure stalked over to the downed prey and sniffed at the body, yowling angrily. Then he turned around and kicked dirt onto the body, which was the only way to deal with a defeated enemy in his opinion. With a sniff, he wandered off. It was time to find some food and a good place to curl up in the sun.