I hadn't counted on the weird "Sacred Rituals" that governed combat on this planet, though.
Instead of just charging in and smashing us to a bloody pulp, our enemy stood back and issued challenges for a series of single combats. Honor seemed to demand that they break our spirit before the first ranks of fighters rolled into us like a tidal wave. I had seen a dozen or more mounted knights trot their steeds out onto the narrow plain that separated our two armies, scream verbal abuse and taunts to the opposite side, and join in single combat with the knight who rode out to answer. One-on-one, one bout after another. We were holding our own so far, but that couldn't last. Baron Sachmon's knights were looking as if they were more than a match for the Raider's knights: we were winning at least two-for-one in these ritualized single combats, but the main event would crush us- if only by the sheer numbers of the Raiders. There were so many of them that they could afford to lose four soldiers for each one of ours and still overrun us with thousands. And with every knight of ours that fell we lost good men that would be sorely needed when the final charge was loosed.
So far the Baron and the Reever had not been challenged. Maybe there was some rule against it. I hadn't seen the Raider's chieftain answer any challenges either. The Baron still had his sword in its sheath, though his hands were gripped in fists so tightly that his knuckles were whitened. The Reever looked inhumanly calm. He'd told me that he could be killed as easily as any other man on the battlefield, even though he was an Immortal. His immortality only seemed to mean that unless he was killed outright, he would recover from any wound. He'd also told me that he'd heal from broken bones or minor wounds far faster than the norm for any of the other natives. He'd healed from a broken arm in a single night, he'd said. In the last thirteen million years he'd had many broken bones and more than his share of sword thrusts to recover from.
My mind just boggled at the thought. Here this man stood, looking as if he were yet to reach middle age, and he had been born before anyone on my planet had bothered to evolve far enough to stand erect. He'd been in almost all of the major wars on this planet, as well as most of the minor ones too, and he still lived. And he was not even the oldest of his people! He'd said that there were members of the High Council of the Immortals who were fifty million years old! If it weren't for their low birthrate they'd have been standing shoulder-to-shoulder across the entire world. I gathered that there were only ten million Immortals in all, and births were only occurring about one every million years or so- at least that was the birthrate now. In the dim, dark past they had been born with greater regularity, but the greatest number of them had simply been created as adults by the Gods! These Gods had long since ceased to be active in the lives of the natives, only rarely intervening in the affairs of the world and peoples that they had created. The Gods seem to have warred among themselves and exhausted their vast powers in that conflict. I couldn't grasp everything that the Reever had told me, but enough of it registered in my whirling mind to form a picture of this world as it had been in its earliest times. To my mind it was a frightening picture: real live Gods walking among the natives- vast powers wielded by impersonal, elemental forces- all for their own ends, their own benefit- without regard of the wishes of we puny mortals. I just hope none of the ones that may be left want to work against us in this battle!
Speaking of battle- another single combat has just started. I can see them hammering away at each other sword-to-sword. These animals that the natives use for horses seem to be bred for battle- they never turn and run, they don't tire easily, even under the weight of an armored knight. Hell, I can see sparks flying off the armor of the two warriors as they hammer away at each other! Our knight took the offensive right away, striking the first blows. The Raider's knight seems to be giving as good as he's getting. I know I'd hate to be down there right now. I bet that I couldn't stand up to that kind of punishment for long. These bouts sometimes take half an hour at a time! Maybe there's something to this ritual after all. If we can defeat enough of the Raiders best men, the rest of them will be discouraged enough to fear the rest of us. It still doesn't make a lot of sense- I mean, holding back the main battle to let these individual combats take place- but if there are enough of them, our reinforcements may arrive in time to keep us from being slaughtered. I just hope the reinforcements will be enough! The Raiders outnumber us by more than I can count.
I flush the water from my ground-effect systems and proceed on course for my allies. I will make better speed by use of my Hovercraft ability than by use of my treads. By remaining below the water's surface until now I have been able to travel from my former tomb to the coastline unseen by the enemy. That option is no longer available. Very well, I shall not skulk about like some frightened spy. I am a unit of the Dinochrome Brigade, a fighting unit of the 20th Virginia Cavalry- a proud and honorable line of warriors. I shall announce my presence to the enemy and let them tremble at my approach!
I query the instrumentality of my allies and am informed that the first wave of battle has been initiated. Although a full-fledged battle has not been joined, the attack is imminent and combat is underway. I must make haste to arrive in time to assist my allies before the enemy overruns their position. Self-testing indicates that I have suffered too much damage to ever attain more than 21.0035% of my full, rated power without an extensive overhaul and depot maintenance. No matter, I have no time for such luxuries- the battle is joined, I am needed now! I increase speed to my absolute limits and begin the ancient battle call of my regiment through my external speakers. The bugle call of a full cavalry charge blasts forth, the echoes ringing from the distant mountains as I skim the surface of the ground before me. No enemy shall delay me, no obstacle shall deter me, no resistance shall dissuade me from my course. Though I am but a single unit of the Dinochrome Brigade, as long as I exist I am the Dinochrome Brigade! Onward! Into battle- for the honor of the regiment- CHARGE!
I can hear the Raiders chanting some sort of battle cry, or maybe its a prayer,- kind of a low- pitched moaning sound. The armored vehicles are moving around. I suppose that they are getting in a better position. Our own armor is already in place: every gun loaded and targets selected- even those patchwork vehicles that we put together. How long they'll stay together is anyone's guess. For the thousandth time, I check the charge on my blaster and count my re-charges. Don't know why, I really don't expect them to have multiplied in the last minute or so since I checked them before. My hands are sweaty.
"Make ready T'narthra," the Baron hissed. "Any moment now they will have worked themselves into the frenzy they need to attack. Cowards! They outnumber us by legions and still they fear us! We will make them pay for their treachery!"
"Quiet!" called the Reever. "I think that they are due for a surprise, quite soon now. Help is on the way- we only need to hold out until then."
"I doubt that help will arrive in time to save the first ranks," I reply. "Those mongrels are beginning to move. The attack is starting!"
Anything else I had wanted to say was drowned out by the roar of artillery as the first volley blasts out from the Raider's armor. Our guns reply, taking out as many of the Raider's heavy guns as possible. Now their cavalry is starting forward, slowly at first, but gaining speed. I can hear the roar of a thousand warriors screaming as they charge. The sound echoes from behind us, building to a fevered pitch. I glance at the Reever as he stands with weapons drawn. He's so calm! Even though he could die as easily as any of us, he's not afraid. As I turn my head back to face the oncoming charge I see the glint of sunlight reflecting off of metal in the far distance- behind us! Have we been out-flanked? Have the Raiders managed to sneak a force around us to attack from the rear as we face their forward line?
"Baron!" I shout. "What is that?"
"That," the Reever answers me instead of the Baron. "That is something I've not seen in several thousand years. Baron! Signal the men to hold fast! Have the artillery keep firing, but don't let the ground troops charge yet!"
The thunder of the Raider's mounts charging drowns out all else. They have nearly covered the distance we'd maintained during the single combats. There were only a few hundred yards between their front line and ours. Our guns thunder out again and again in response to the Baron's orders. I add my blaster's voice to that of our cannons, feeling the weapon grow hot in my hand.
Three hundred yards- I'm only scorching the enemy. I should conserve my ammunition. I can't think for all the noise, the roar is getting louder.
Two hundred yards- I fire again and see enemy knights begin to fall, burning. I hear trumpets above the roar of battle. The ground is shaking!
"Cover your ears!" the Reever shouts. The noise of battle is so loud that it hurts my head. My ears feel wet, they may be bleeding. My teeth have begun to ache. The ground is shaking so much that I'm knocked to my knees, dropping my weapon. The noise! It hurts! I grit my teeth and make a grab for my blaster. Got it! I fire again at the Raiders, now only a hundred yards away. The trumpets are deafening now. A cloud of dust surges over our troops- from our rear! Before I turn to look, I see the Raiders reigning in- coming to a halt! In disbelief I turn to look behind us.
Go directly to part 6.
I have another story that features Unit AHVC of the Line which can be found at this link:
Grudge Match A short tale of single combat between equals.
Bethdish is a world circling a star, called Antuth by the natives (who named the star after the chief deity in their pantheon), presently some 65 lightyears from Earth. Rumor has it that the entire solar system had earlier been located in the Andromeda Galaxy, but was moved by some mysterious force to its new location in our own Milky Way Galaxy. The surviving written history of Bethdish covers some 12,000 years, (with the afore-mentioned displacement to the Milky Way occuring in their year 6055 -- circa 3140 AD, Terran Calendar) but the records of the Immortals reportedly go back roughly a billion years and relate the rise and fall of several civilized eras of non-immortal natives before the present recorded history begins.
The Immortals claim to have been directly created by the Gods of Bethdish, while the diverse non-immortal species are said to have evolved naturally. The several alien colonies now present are, of course, immigrants. One Xenoarcheologist of note, Professor Eustas Gray of the Emperor Norton University of San Francisco, has published several monographs on the subject of excavations on Bethdish that purport to uphold the Immortal's beliefs. Other experts in the field dispute his findings, but all the evidence is not yet in.
Further records of the history of Bethdish are forthcoming from this Author, while previous excerpts are available in your local information network.
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