Authors: M Harold Page
Swords Versus Tanks 5:
“Champions Battle for the Fate of the Future!”
M Harold Page
(c) M Harold Page 2016
Dedicated to my writing wingman, David S Baker, the Modern Medievalist.
As always, with special thanks to the eagle-eyed Neil MacCormack for yet more editing help.
Jasmine gunned the throttle and the motorbike lurched off the road. Mary Schumacher's grip tightened around her waist, perhaps more than was needful. As they thundered around the walls of Kinghaven, Jasmine made the most of the warm, soft sensation against her back. The all-pervading sexual tension reminded her of what she was fighting for but Mary was too good an assistant to risk seducing.
Ahead, Smith — one-armed and one-eyed — stood on the back of a tracked transporter, overseeing the Post Office Engineering teams. The engineers themselves stood around drinking coffee and munching on hunks of the local bread, except for a dozen or so who knelt at the feet of a priest. Judging from his dramatic arm gestures, the cleric was in mid sermon.
Jasmine threw on the front brake and let the bike skid around, spraying mud as it halted. She pulled off her helmet and goggles and handed them to Mary.
Heads raised. The White Brother glared at her and wiped mud from his cowl. Jasmine smiled back innocently. Bad enough to have to do a deal with the Archbishop. Worse to discover that the Egality's Scientific Atheism had not fully supplanted the Pre-Modern Superstition in the hearts of the ordinary soldiers. How long before they started looking askance at taking orders from a woman?
"Field Marshal," said Smith from his perch on the transporter. His single eye glinted like a coal. He leaned out and offered her his remaining hand. "It's like old times, isn't it, Jasmine?"
Jasmine spotted the photographer from the Post Office Army Chronicle and ignored the hand. Smith couldn't take her weight even with all his limbs attached – this was just an attempt to create an iconic photo. She vaulted onto the transporter’s flatbed and rose up amongst his security detail. They flinched aside leaving her face-to-face with him. She caught a faint whiff of stale urine. Rumour had it that Smith had suffered some kind of injury when… but she didn’t want to think about Tom’s betrayal.
"Postmaster General Smith," she said. "You've come a long way from Port Gunner."
He gave a politician's smile and waved his stump. "At a price."
Jasmine resisted the urge to throw him off his transporter. If injuries were proof of military ability, then every maimed veteran would be retired a general. On the other hand, the survivors of Hamilton's Post Office empire probably saw things Smith's way, albeit through the usual number of eyes. Somehow he'd said the right things — promised to look after the traumatised organisation, but without picking a fight with Jasmine's military. He'd also promised to keep his people out of the "meat grinder." Her lips quirked. There was only going to be one meat grinder, and it would be the natives who marched into that.
"The enemy are advancing," she said. "Aerial Recon estimates ten to fifteen thousand, with siege weapons. Thanks to the Anomaly, we have to take them seriously. We've got about three days."
Smith edged closer. "The heroic Post Office workers will have laid the barbed wire by then."
“I don’t suppose,” said Jasmine, “that they have found the missing airship munitions?”
“Alas no,” said Smith. “No doubt the crypto-Elitist traitor Hamilton failed to ship them through the Gate before it ceased to function.”
Jasmine stared at the little man.
He stared back, remaining eye unflinching.
“No bombs. No tracer resupply,” she said.
“Yes, but we will be safe behind the fortifications laid by—”
“—the heroic Post Office workers,” completed Jasmine.
An engine growled. Jasmine turned and swore. The Archbishop, quite reasonably, had demanded his own transporter in order to oversee his scattered priests in their various postings around her army. What she hadn't expected was for the fat schemer to paint the tracked vehicle white, add crimson gridirons, and use it as a mobile pulpit. Now the vehicle ploughed towards them over the muddy field. "Excuse me, Postmaster General," she said and dropped off Smith’s transporter to head off the visitor.
The transporter pulled up a good few metres from Smith's people. Religious flunkies poured out. A carpet unrolled through clouds of incense. A burly looking White Brother positioned a set of steps and the man who would have burnt Maud emerged from the transporter cab and waddled the length of his fancy rug. Behind him came Abbot Clunard, his spidery second-in-command.
"Your Holiness," said Jasmine, hiding her flexing fingers by her side. "Come to preach?"
The Archbishop's jowls flapped then squeezed into a parody of a smile. "No Field Marshal. I have come to crave an audience. I am… concerned about the advance of the Imperial Host."
Jasmine gestured at the triple line of barbed wire, at General Ibis-Bear's field guns poking through make-shift embrasures in the city wall, and at the busy tank park where conscripted carpenters put their skills to use in new ways. "If they come, they will die."
"This morning, at prayer," said the Archbishop. "God spoke to me. He said that it would be better to advance to meet the Invaders at Holy Mount."
Jasmine did not bother to hide her scorn. "I'm not marching my people into the wilderness when I'm dug in here with short supply lines."
"God would be most displeased if His Holiest Place were to fall to the heretical minions of the Emperor," said Abbot Clunard.
Jasmine looked from one man to the other and wondered: Had God also told the Archbishop to execute Maud? To pile wood up at those delicate feet? "Surely they'll respect Holy Mount," she said. After all, the Great Reconstitution wasn't due for another twenty years or so.
The Archbishop scowled. "My… sources… inform me that the Arch Necromancer Ranulph Dacre and the Notorious Witch Maud Clifford march with the army."
Jasmine's stomach seemed to fill with razor-winged butterflies. The two of them were together, and coming in her direction. Would it be too much to ask that both would survive the pointless slaughter? She shrugged. "If Holy Mount falls, you'll get it back quickly enough."
"If it falls, my daughter," said the Archbishop. He leaned closer, without leaving the carpet. "Then God will be angry."
Jasmine took a step closer.
The Archbishop's neck seemed to retract into his turtle-like bulk.
, Grossi?" she asked, mildly.
The fat cleric shook his head hurriedly, setting up a spiral wobble in his bloated neck. "No, Field Marshal." Gingerly, he tiptoed off the carpet and into the mud. Wincing with each slurping step, he advanced until his foggy breath billowed into her face. "Are you familiar with the Rite of Incineration?"
"OK...," she said, inching away. "The Rite of Incineration… you mean when you burn witches?"
“Yes,” said the Archbishop. “The witch or necromancer goes on the pyre along with their books, and their evil magic vanishes from the world.” He swallowed and glanced about. "Understand that this is a great secret and that if you breathe a word of this to others, you shall condemn that soul which you deny having."
“Enough mumbo-jumbo,” said Jasmine. The man was sounding like General Stella Ibis Bear. She started to turn away.
The Archbishop's podgy fingers closed around her sleeve. "If Holy Mount were desecrated, God would undo each and every Rite of Incineration. Magic would return to the world. Do you really want your army to face that?"
"Your magic is just…"
, she completed mentally. But she remembered carrying out a snap inspection on a certain tank, and the blob of Marcel's chewing gum holding down the port throttle grip. And then there was Ranulph's reason for seeking out the Tolmecs in the first place — somebody had ‘stolen’ the magic of the Rune Isles.
The Archbishop's beady eyes bored into her. "It is not
The Tolmec tattoo on her chest prickled. Jasmine resisted the urge to rub it. "Do
The Archbishop chewed his lip. "There is… no reason for them to. But they might well find out. The Witch Maud Clifford… is as perceptive as she is damned."
Jasmine wished she were back in the Rune Isles chasing an invisible princess around a barbarian bedchamber. What would it be like facing an army that was entirely invisible? Or one that flew? What if half her people turned into
. Or if the Gates of Hell opened and demons poured out to drag her people bodily down to a very physical damnation? “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me this before?”
Abbot Clunard appeared behind the Archbishop’s shoulder. “It is not for you to question the will of the Church.”
Jasmine ignored him. “We’ve spent weeks digging in here! Now we’ve got to shift.”
“Yes you do, Field Marshal,” said the Archbishop. His blubbery lips wobbled as if he wanted to smirk.
Jasmine kept her expression bland. Was he genuinely a malicious moron? Or was this a scheme to undermine her. If so, who was he working for? “I’ll tell them that you warned me of a possible revolt in Kinghaven,” she said. That would be reason enough to fight out in the open. “I expect you both to stick to that story.”
The Archbishop nodded.
Jasmine spun around and headed for where Mary Schumacher waited by the motorcycle.
There was at least one good defensive position covering Holy Mount. If she timed her counter-march properly, she wouldn't even have to worry about supplies for a while. But, if the natives overwhelmed her army…
How big a risk was it?
"Field Marshal?" prompted Mary.
It all depended on how good the native general was.
Where the Middleburgh to Kinghaven road skirts the waters of Holy Bay, it crosses a natural amphitheatre formed by a mountain valley running into the sea. It was here that the Sword People overwhelmed the Ilian legions, and here also — in the shadow of Holy Mount — that their knightly descendants repulsed the Iron Horde. To this day, the sandy soil yields the bones of the slain.
— Edgar Howard Lamb, "Steel at Sunset," (Kinghaven, 1922)
“God’s Teeth,” said Ranulph, feeling his stomach churn. He pulled his cloak tight against the wind. “They are not supposed to be here!”
I’m not ready for this.
He was standing on Khan’s Prospect, the big flat rock that marked the point where the Kinghaven road dropped down from the mountains to cross the flat sandy hinterland of Holy Bay.
there, Grand Marshal,” said the scout, pointing across the bay. “Just hard to see.”
“I don’t doubt you, goodman,” said Ranulph. He opened his ornate spyglass and brought it to bear on the ridge that marked the other end of Holy Bay. The ridge was really a spur of the Heart Mountain that loomed off to the left. The ridge sank toward the sea then reared up to form Holy Mount, the walled citadel of Mother Church. Somehow, behind those high walls, amongst the cloisters and chapels, the Church kept the world’s magic imprisoned, releasing it only in order to fake miracles.
The sea breeze sprayed him with fine rain and made Maud’s cloak flap. “Let me have a turn,” she said.
“Go take a look on your broomstick,” said Ranulph.
Maud punched his arm.
He ignored her and swung the spyglass back over the ridge.
Along the front of the ridge ran the little rivulet known as the Slaughterburn. It was not much of a moat; there were a dozen fords and the Kinghaven road merely dipped into the gully, then rose to climb over the ridge. The far bank of the river seemed empty. The top of the ridge however… He made out the shapes of odd cannon with slender barrels and square shields to protect the crew. “Yes. I see them. Thank you. Thorolf, give the goodman a purse to share with his comrades then send for my captains to order a halt and join me.”