Swords Versus Tanks 1: “Armored heroes clash across the centuries!” spent most of its first week in the Amazon US Top 20 Steampunk books. Now with book two out (“Vikings battle Zeppelins while forbidden desires spark!“), so I think book 1’s first chapter merits a showing on Black Gate.
Sir Ranulph’s prowess won him an heroic death, but it was Albrecht’s artistic vision that granted him immortality.
— K Lucy, “Exhibition Review: Four Hundred Years of Sir Ranulph Dacre” (Kinghaven Times, 1890)
Kingdom of Westerland, Earldom of Dacre, Unicorn Hill, Autumn 1490
Sparks crackled over the great monolith. Ozone washed from its facets and wafted through the chill autumn air of Unicorn Hill.
In the stone’s long shadow, unicorns sniffed, scented power, and — driven by some genetic memory — edged closer. A white stallion snorted and lowered his spiralled horn to meet the challenge.
The monolith flickered out of existence. In its place appeared a window into the future. The hilltop was a place of russet-leaved trees and lush grass, but the world beyond the shimmering pane of not-stuff was one of grey tarmac, corrugated iron, and tanks.
Lots of tanks.
Tanks trundling towards the time window.
The stallion’s ears went back. It whinnied, tossed its head and pawed the turf. It did not understand what it saw, but it sensed a threat.
Snorting and stamping, the other unicorns huddled behind their leader.
The first of the tanks hurtled out into the year 1490 — thirty five tons of grey-painted steel with a pair of 60mm howitzers projecting like abortive arms from sponson side-turrets.
The unicorn lunged at the port track. The elegant horn went through the steel as if it were wet cardboard, and stuck.
Twin 2,000-horsepower engines roared. Rhomboid tracks squealed. The endless band of rattling plates tore the creature down into the grass then rolled over it. It split like a sack of tripe.
The surviving unicorns spun away, white manes like breaking waves.
The war machine’s prows enveloped them all and they vanished under its armoured belly. Billowing exhaust fumes, the tank trundled on. In its wake appeared yet more smoke-belching ironclads. The tanks clattered downhill, curving to set a course across the valley towards where a white fortress rose up from a craggy summit like a remembered sandcastle.
A wheeled siege tower inched across the open killing ground before the ramparts. On the battlements, springalds thumped. Like the bastard offspring of a crossbow and a lion cage, each weapon hurled a giant flaming arrow that scrawled a line of smoke as it whirred out from the castle to thwack into the wet hides protecting the siege tower, then fizzle out.
Unperturbed, the siege engine rolled onward toward the spot where the dry moat had been filled in with rubble and dead bodies lay scattered like toppled chess pieces.
Castle Dacre was about to fall.
Sir Ranulph, Twelfth Earl of Dacre held his breath as servants heaved and the postern gate creaked. The rune-etched iron door swung open on the gloomy floor of his castle’s dry moat.
The tunnel went silent except for the tense breathing of the sally party, and the scratch of Albrecht’s pen as the artist-turned-squire captured the moment. He leaned close and whispered. “I still don’t like this. That siege tower is moving too slowly.” Then he mouthed, “It’s a trap.”
Ranulph shrugged his shoulders, making his armour rustle. “Well nobody is shooting right now,” he announced for the benefit of the others.
A ripple went through the militiamen in red Dacre livery who waited in the tunnel behind him. Men straightened their backs, shifted grips on their trailing weapons; hook-bladed bills with shafts too long to hold upright in the cramped space.
Albrecht folded away the sketch, slipped his hands into his gauntlets — heavy steel mittens chosen to protect his precious fingers — and reached for the two-handed flail he’d picked up back in the Psalmist Wars. The spiked head swung on its short chain scraping the stone.
Ranulph raised an armoured hand. “Wait. Clifford could have set an ambush.”
“Now he’s cautious,” muttered Albrecht.
Ranulph snapped shut his visor. Blood rushing in his ears, he sprang out of the doorway, landed in a clatter of armour, raised Steelcutter… “Hah!”
He lowered his sword.
No enemies awaited him in the shadows, just reeking corpses piled around the base of the rubble causeway. Clifford’s mercenaries had paid a high price to fill in a single portion of the moat. But within the hour, the siege tower would roll up to the castle’s walls. The ramparts bore ancient runes rendering them well-nigh indestructible unless you could get close with a big enough cannon and a willing priest. However, the runes would make no difference when the siege tower let down its drawbridge and thousands of Clifford’s mercenaries poured into the castle.
Armour clattered behind him, “Did you have to be first?”
“You followed me, squire,” shot back Ranulph, raising his visor.
“That’s because I am too t — ” Albrecht flinched as the castle’s springalds thumped, sending a volley of quarrels flaming overhead. “ — t… trusting,” he completed. Visor still down, shoulders hunched as much as his armour allowed, the squire ushered the sally party through the narrow postern and into the gloom of the rock-cut moat. “Come on, gentlemen. Our good lord thinks it’s safe.”
The men, all in stout red jacks and red painted sallet helmets bearing the Dacre Black Gryphon, filed out; eighteen with hooked bills newly blessed by Father Gervaise so as to cope with opponents in rune-etched armour, two carrying the precious incendiary petard.
Ranulph steeled his expression. These men had no place in a war between aristocrats, but they had defended their homes from Clifford, been declared traitors, and when the town of Dacre fell, had taken refuge in the castle. As their lord it was his job to see off each assault. It was also his duty to keep as many of them alive as possible while he did it.
He turned and jogged for the corpse-strewn causeway.
Albrecht called after him, “Wait for us, you great oaf!”
Ranulph just laughed. He leaned forward and scrambled up the steep mound of stone blocks and wood that Clifford’s men had torn from the town’s buildings. He could hear nothing but the rattle of dislodged debris and his own heavy breathing. The sweet smell of corpses became stifling and then he was at the top, panting.
He sized up the oncoming siege tower. The wet hides looted from Dacre’s famous tanneries rendered the monstrous engine invulnerable from front and flanks — unless you had a cannon, which, alas, Castle Dacre did not. However, the rear would be open with a broad ladder for soldiers to climb, and vulnerable indeed to the large earthenware pot of Parvian Fire that his men even now heaved up the side of the causeway.
He’d timed his attack to catch the siege tower when it was half way across the Cattle Market — close enough for Ranulph and his men to make the dash, far enough away that Clifford’s army wouldn’t be quite ready to charge across the Cattle Market and mount the ladder.
Of course there was still the problem of Clifford’s hired Saumurian crossbowmen. Hadn’t they noticed him yet?
“Oh God!” Albrecht’s voice came up to him. “You’re doing that thing again. Should we call you Sir Ranulph Decoy instead of Dacre?”
Ranulph laughed. “I’m doing my best, squire.” He whirled Steelcutter one-handed and bellowed, “For Dacre!”
A cheer went up from the battlements. Men chanted, “Dacre! Dacre! Dacre!”
He grinned. It was like being back on the tournament circuit.
Now Clifford’s crossbowmen woke up. Black specks swarmed from the buildings bordering the far side of the Cattle Market.
Ranulph flicked down his visor and sidestepped. “That got their attention.” One bolt smacked off his breastplate, jolting his chest. Sparks blossomed; the sign of blade runes warring with steel runes. More bolts cracked into the stones ground around his mailed boots, or buzzed past, all diverted by the superior arrow runes worked into his armour.
Albrecht clambered up to join him. He snapped out tense orders, voice shaking. “Come on, gentlemen! Before Clifford’s crossbowmen reload! Petardeers — light the fuse now, if you will. There won’t be much time at the tower.”
Ranulph waited until the first of the Dacre billmen scrambled to the top of the causeway, then turned and sprinted toward the siege tower.
Helm jouncing, chinstrap straining with every pace, Ranulph let his long legs carry him across the open ground. The siege tower swelled to fill his helmet sights. Close to, it was massive — the size of a small keep or border tower.
At least two score knights in Clifford’s yellow livery spilled out from behind the hide-covered monster and charged to greet him. These men must have travelled inside the tower. Perhaps that explained its slow progress.
Ranulph halted, dropped into a fighting stance, raised Steelcutter above his head and returned his left hand to the grip. The back of his neck prickled. What with the New War of priest-blessed pikes and cannon, this could be the last time knight faced knight in proper close combat.
Clifford’s men rattled closer, bunching as each strove to be first to fall on their lone adversary.
From behind Ranulph came the sharp thunder of a dozen pairs of springald arms snapping forward. Three-foot long bolts whistled down from the battlements and splashed sorcerous sparks from enemy armour.
One drilled right through the helmet of the nearest knight, whipped him off his feet, sent him crashing into the base of the tower.
Another severed a hand at the wrist, vanished into a breastplate.
The front rank of Clifford’s knights went down in a spray of blood.
Ranulph smiled into his visor. There were advantages to being the Blood Brother of the High King of the Rune Isles; his springald crews had rune-etched bolts by the bushel. He let the next rank stumble on the bodies of the first, then hurled himself into the attack.
A poleaxe wielder in a grotesque hawk-faced helmet broke free of the chaos. The heavy axe swept through a diagonal arc towards Ranulph’s head.
Ranulph sprang to his enemy’s left and windmilled Steelcutter down on the knight’s exposed forearms. The rune-etched blade clanged into the armour, triggering an explosion of uncanny sparks. Steelcutter thrummed as the edge bit. With a sidestep Ranulph snapped the greatsword up under his foe’s steel beak. The impact slammed back the man’s head, ripped open his visor. He crumpled – stunned or neck snapped, it hardly mattered.
More knights came on, poleaxes lowered like spears.
Ranulph shifted his left hand to Steelcutter’s blade. He frowned. You had to get the timing just right…
A dozen spikes jabbed forward, seeking the gaps where only steel rings guarded his flesh.
…and, whooping, Ranulph spun into them, gathering the shafts on his sword. One got through and slammed into his breastplate. Another snagged his shoulder piece. Ranulph drove Steelcutter’s keen point into the nearest armpit and hurled himself onward.
Behind him, a score men roared, “For Dacre!” Steel clashed. Albrecht’s curses rose above the tinkershop din of the melee. Ranulph grinned as he fought. The Dacre men had caught up with him and, as usual, his squire’s nervous caution had flipped over into a berserker rage.
Something clanged on his helmet. Nausea jolted through his skull. Still with his left hand on Steelcutter’s blade, he turned into the attack and covered his body with the weapon. There was an impact on his sword. He had a spinning vision of a man-at-arms, armoured wrist caught on Steelcutter’s edge, mace frozen in mid-downswing.
Ranulph hooked Steelcutter’s point around the back of his opponent’s neck where the throat piece left off and tore him off his feet. Head cleared, he found himself facing lesser soldiers in quilted jacks. He cut the nearest from shoulder to hip and sprang over the body.
The next man did not have time to react.
Nor the next. Faces reared up in Ranulph’s sights, went from confused to surprised, then vanished in a red mist. He would dream of them later but for now, his swordsmanship poured through the shifting spaces between the weapons, as impersonal as floodwater in Spring.
John Clifford, Duke of Highcraig smiled as he watched the unfolding melee from the comfort of the Guild Hall balcony. “It seems, Your Grace, that Dacre took the bait.”
Edward Lowther, King of Westerland leaned over the balustrade. Despite his youth, his voice carried over the sound of battle. “An odd kind of trap, Uncle. Sir Ranulph appears to be slaying all before him.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” said Clifford. “But then Dacre does not yet understand the nature of the threat to his castle.”
Beside Clifford, Lord Lionel fidgeted, making his gilded armour rattle and jingle irritatingly. “Father, shall I sound the charge?”
“And give away the surprise?” Clifford shook his head. “Fifty knights should cope with Dacre and his riffraff for just long enough.”
“Thirty,” corrected King Edward. “Actually, twenty nine… No; twenty eight. Twenty seven…”
Now Lord Lionel clattered from foot to foot with agitation.
Clifford sighed. If the youth had not sported the family red hair, he would have had doubts about his paternity. “Go and take your place, if you must. But listen for the trumpets.”
“Thank you, father!” The lad clattered off down the stone stairs with cries of, “Squire! My sword! Where the Hell are you, squire? I’ll tan your damned hide…”
Of course, realised Clifford, as Lord Protector he could always legitimise one of his more competent bastards. He leaned over the balcony. “Lord Lionel?”
The lad grinned up at him, as stupidly eager as his mother had been. “Yes, Father?”
“If you can, I think it would be best if Dacre died by your hand — I know you can beat him.”
Lord Lionel’s grin widened. “Of course, Father. I shall make you proud.”
The knights and soldiers in yellow livery melted away. Suddenly there was nothing between Ranulph and the siege tower except dying men trying to crawl to safety. He cast around him for his followers. Six lay sprawled amongst the dead, red livery standing out amongst the Clifford yellow. Of the remaining fourteen, one man clutched a stump, another had his hands covering his face as if that would staunch the blood. Two more had leg wounds. Another had blood all over his jack and looked whiter than Parvian marble. The rest bled from cuts to arm and face.
Albrecht, meanwhile, seemed to be trying to pound the corpse of a knight into mush, appalling oaths punctuating great swings of his flail.
Ranulph shrugged off the guilt and advanced around the siege tower. The back wasn’t open after all but rather was boxed in with planks. However, there was an open doorway in the base.
The Dacre billmen gave a cheer and he sensed the survivors gathering in behind him. Albrecht clattered up. The spikes of the squire’s flail dripped blood. More blood marred his armour. “You lunatic…!”
A single trumpet sounded.
“Oh shit,” said Albrecht.
Four hundred paces away over on the other side of the Cattle Market, an army boiled out of the buildings. The sun flashed on armour and blades as thousands of men roared and charged toward the siege tower.
“But they weren’t supposed to be armed and ready…” said Albrecht.
“Quick,” ordered Ranulph, turning, “Everybody. Leave the petard. Run! God’s teeth — run!”
The din of the onrushing army swelled in his Ranulph’s ears. His men loped off for the safety of Castle Dacre’s magically indestructible walls. He frowned into his visor. They wouldn’t make it, not with half of them badly wounded. He slid Steelcutter in its belt ring and stooped to take a handle of the petard.
Albrecht thrust the spiked butt of his flail into the mud. He stooped and took the other handle. “Like Blackness Castle, eh, Milord?” Fuse fizzing and trailing smoke, they hefted the petard around
Across the Cattle Market, the armoured mass of Clifford’s army had already covered half the distance to the siege tower. The mass resolved into individuals; pale faces under open visors or raised sallets, shoulder armour bulking out the knights.
Crossbow bolts buzzed past, thwacked into the boards. One glanced off Albrecht’s helmet. He cursed but did not drop the petard.
Something moved inside the doorway. A crossbow bolt buzzed out. It went wild, harmlessly diverted by Ranulph’s arrow runes,
Working in silent unison, they swung back the pot and hurled it through the doorway
Flame flashed, then whooshed. Fire crackled. Men within the tower cried out. A screaming figure burst out of the doorway and staggered a few paces, beating frantically at his burning cassock. He rolled onto the mud, still screaming.
“A burning priest. Whoops,” said the squire, with the satisfaction of a man who had once only narrowly escaped execution at the stake.
Ranulph turned his back on the dying cleric and drew Steelcutter.
The ragged front ranks of Clifford’s army swept closer like a foaming wave. Springald bolts lashed out from the castle walls, but the crews of the giant bolt-throwing engines might as well have hurled darning needles at the tide.
Meanwhile, the priest stopped screaming.
“Um. Shouldn’t we be running, Milord?” asked Albrecht.
Albrecht raised his visor to reveal his ‘My Lord is Crazy’ face. “I know that laugh,” he said loudly over the sound of the onrushing army. “Come on you great oaf, we can still make it!”
Ranulph shook his head. “I must buy time for my men.”
Albrecht simply closed his visor, plucked his flail out of the ground and took his stand next to Ranulph.
There was nothing left to say.
Clifford’s men closed on them.
The lighter-armoured soldiers quickly outran the knights and advanced with bills and spears waving like reeds in a strong wind, their footfalls a thousand drum rolls, their shouts an echo from the Thirteenth Hell.
The tower crackled and spat. The smoke began to envelop them. The priest roared, “I curse you, Dacre!”
Albrecht coughed and leaned closer to Ranulph, “Why the priest? Knights don’t need priests to bless their weapons.”
Ranulph shrugged. “What does it matter — ”
A deep thunderclap rattled Ranulph’s armour, shook the siege tower. Then came the distinctive crash of a cannonball smashing into the castle wall and the familiar rotten-egg stench of gunpowder.
The noise brought the army to a halt.
Albrecht broke the eerie silence. “Then again,” he remarked. “They could have had a bombard concealed in the base of the siege tower. I’d say they’d need the priest to bless that.”
Ranulph half turned, careful not to put his back to his enemies.
Where the causeway filled the moat, a breach now marred the white walls of Castle Dacre. The survivors of his sally party stumbled on through the powder smoke. They really weren’t going to make it. Even if they did, Clifford’s army would be hard on their heels, and they would have no professionals to lead them.
Orders rang out, and Clifford’s army resumed its charge.
“Damn.” Ranulph turned to Albrecht. “Go and take command.”
Albrecht’s eyes were white behind his helmet sights. “Me?”
As one, Clifford’s army roared and picked up speed.
Ranulph pawed out his left hand. He twisted the heavy flail from his squire’s grip and tossed it against the base of the burning siege tower. “Put this in one of your sketches and show it to King Ragnar,” he shouted. “By your vow to me — Go!”
Albrecht yelled something.
But Ranulph was striding forward, Steelcutter raised to greet the oncoming army, his gaze fixed on the Red Unicorn banner fluttering over the throng. If he was going to die today, Clifford would precede him down to Hell.
M Harold Page has several franchise novels in print. You can download Swords Versus Tanks 1: Armoured heroes clash across the centuries! and Swords Versus Tanks 2: Vikings battle Zeppelins while forbidden desires spark! from Amazon.