General Patigen looked across the long table where plans, maps and the debris of dinner sat scattered in arcane clusters that might mean something dangerous; at least everything except the plate of congealing meat and gravy, though to Kartus that looked the most troubling. The stuff quivered now and then, and though Kartus knew that came from the movement of troops tramping across the grounds outside the tent, it still made the remnants of the general's meal look as though they might rise up and attack at any moment.
After what he'd seen today, he wouldn't be at all surprised.
"Tell me again," Patigen said, his voice low and dangerous. "What is it we're facing?"
The scout shifted on his feet, weary after the long hike over the hills to spy on the enemy lands. His partner said nothing at all and Kartus knew that left this report entirely in his hands.
"Only about five hundred foot soldiers, sir," he said. Patigen nodded. No surprise there. The valley between them and the Shomay Empire was narrow and long. They couldn't round up too many troops and there'd been no sign the Shomay had moved to stop the Lyten army here.
"Foot soldiers. Yes. And the rest. Say it again."
Kartus shifted on his feet again, cast Daklin one dark glance and turned back to the general. "More than two hundred riding beasts, sir. With wings."
"Cows," he finally said. "Huge, two-legged cows with wings. The villager we brought back says they're Draconian War Cows."
Silence again. He half expect Patigen to make him repeat the report yet again. Instead, the general looked down at the table, moved something, moved another thing. Looked up.
"You will not mention the cows to anyone."
That was just fine by Kartus who knew the kind of reaction it would get from the troops. He didn't care to be the brunt of their jokes.
"Not a word."
"No sir," he agreed and Daklin gave a silent nod of agreement.
The two left. Outside the tent, Kartus gave his partner a glance and shake of his head. "That was great the way you leapt right in there and helped out, Dak."
"His dinner was moving," Dak said.
"Yeah, I noticed that, too." He realized, suddenly, that Dak had been almost entirely silent since they had first seen the war cows sailing blissfully through the air over the enemy camp.
"You didn't tell him about the women," Dak said.
"I kind of think the War Cows were enough for one report."
"I am going to go get drunk," Dak said.
"On the eve of battle? Is that wise?
"This time? Yeah."
Kartus thought about it for a moment. Then he followed his companion off to steal what liquor they could. He didn't, really, think they could get drunk enough.
The Lyten troops came over the hills in a line a hundred wide and fifty deep, the foot soldiers in the lead, the horse behind. Though that wasn't entirely true. Kartus and Dakin were actually far -- too far -- in the lead, but they were not in front of the troops. They'd climbed a huge oak to get a better view of the valley below, which still laid nestled in early morning fog.
As the battle began, Kartus knew he was right. They weren't drunk enough.
The first line of War Cows came up through the fog; bigger and uglier creatures than he remembered, though amazing they could fly on those little wings. The riders were wild haired and not so ugly. The half dozen women who rode the lead animals gave yells of bloody delight as they urged the animals straight towards the enemy lines as the rest of the war cow herd followed. Their thunderous moos filled the air as they dived at the troops.
The horses, being wiser than men, panicked first. Kartus just buried his head in his arms and refused to watch. He had to hope that flying cows could not land in trees.
It wasn't a very long battle. After the total rout, the war cows landed and placidly began to chow down on the hillside's grass while the women sat in the shade of the tree and laughed about their win. Kartus and Dakin found themselves treed for another whole day. By the time they climbed down, careful of where they stepped on the trampled field, the army had retreated over two more sets of hills.
"I joined the army to see wonders," Kartus said, looking back over his shoulder. "I've seen enough."
Dakin nodded. He didn't say much. In fact, he never said much ever again. They both retired, but then so did the General and most of his troops. Many of the poor lads could never go back to the farm and face their cows, so they took to the sea instead. Kartus heard that didn't work out so well when they discovered the island with the giant flying fish that were ridden by intelligent cats. The cats had told the fish to do something useful or be dinner. So they flew.
The Lytans never did try to take the Shomay Empire again. The battle never made the history books, either, though people talked about it often enough.
"Flying cows! Vicious flying cows!" some half-drunk man would shout. "Controlled by women! Moo! Moo!"
And the tavern would erupt into laugher, though often enough a barmaid would accidentally tip a pitcher of ale over someone's head.
At least that used to happen before the valley people invaded and the dreaded Draconian War Cows filled the air with their frightening moos and flapping wings. Now days . . . Well the men in the taverns speak softly and say yes ma'am and thank you a lot more than they used to.
And we all watch where we step.