A/n : This story is the first of a series – check out the C2 in my profile for the stories written by myself and The Wordsmith.

For more information about this story see the webpage linked from my profile.

The word "machina" is pronounced "MAH-kee-nah" (the plural is "machinae", "MAH-kee-nay"). It is Latin for "engine" or "machine", and was chosen as an alternative to the over-used "mech".

The character of Dieter in chapter eight was created by The Wordsmith. A few paragraphs of the scene where he eats with Vladimir contain elements of her work (with her permission).

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MechKnight : The Lady's Guardian

Chapter One : The Cardinal's Invitation

My tale begins at the end of a journey from the Black Sea port of Varna, through the north of the battle-wracked Balkans, leaving the war I had been part of for months. It was Spring in Europe and I was traveling to Rome – hoping to arrive there in time for the Holy Week celebrations, perhaps even in time to assist at Mass on Palm Sunday somewhere in the Eternal City. As it happened, I managed to get there in time for that and more.

I. Perhaps it sorts ill of me to begin a tale this way. Just who am I? Well, I suppose the who will have to wait – I daresay that you will learn it as you read this tale. But what I am might be instructive – I am the pilot of a machina, one of the many quasi-mercenaries plying his trade throughout the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. In the lands where I come from we are called Boyars and our machinae are hereditary heirlooms, passed from father to son – or mother to daughter, perhaps, although there is a tendency towards chauvinism in my homeland. Elsewhere in Europe – and, I suppose, the rest of the world – there are other customs. We might be called Knight, miles in machina, pilot, or something less flattering.

You are, I am sure, familiar with machinae – at least with what they look like; gigantic armored weapons platforms powered by fission reactors. Motivated by limbs they are more mobile than a tank and are commanded by a single warrior. They have been the mainstay of militaries and militias for longer than anyone can remember. Of course, there might be some of you who have been raised to believe that machinae are in some way divine, or magical, or what have you. I drive machinae for a living and I will tell you what I know of them. We might give them names, or maintain they have personalities, but they aren't enchanted, aren't magical. They aren't people – they are mechanical constructs, engines of war. If you don't agree with that, then you might not want to read any further.

Of course, as a Boyar, I'm always sentimental when I talk about my machina.

Her name is Maugrim and – unless you've been part of the Balkan conflicts, or fought in the central European mountains – you might not have seen one like her. Most machinae are vaguely humanoid in shape – ranging in size from twenty feet to over eighty tall. Most of them aren't what you would call pretty – they are built for efficiency in war as nothing more than walking tanks. Scout machinae are limber and leggy, with jump jets built into their calves and back. Battle machinae are heavy and solid, squat and with a lot of armor. But Maugrim is different.

She's a jump machina – a heavy scout, I suppose, or maybe a light battle machina. She's about thirty feet high at the shoulder – and I say that because her head raises or lowers as the mood takes her. See? I'm being sentimental.

She's not bipedal like most machinae; she's quadrupedal, with a tail and a long snout, narrow-waisted where the exhausts vent steam from her reactor. She looks like a wolf – a big, tall, sleek, elegant, armored wolf. Her structural members are the color of dull brushed steel – although most of them are ceramic and polymer – and her armor plates are muted gray and blue and brown urban camo. She carries a pretty basic suite of lasers powered by the fission reactor; a mid-range battle las-cannon, a brace of rapid-firing pulsars and a long-range Boeing Firelance with a dedicated targeting and sensor suite Dominik Kristatos always fiddles with when he gets the chance.

If you don't recognize the name Dominik Kristatos then I suppose you're not familiar with machinae, or maybe you're just from the north of Europe (or even outside the continent itself). Dominik was the Factory Master of Kristatos Factory in the northern Papal States – yes, that Kristatos. And it was that Factory which was my first port of call as I moved towards Rome.

The Factory is located next to the rail-head some fifty miles north of the Vatican, and I smiled as I saw the familiar flurry of activity surrounding it – framing members of machinae being loaded onto a waiting train, at another siding coal or perhaps ore was being unloaded. I carefully paced Maugrim into position by the massive overhead doors that would give access to the vast, cavernous building that dwarfed most cathedrals. The whole place was built on a gigantic scale – even the filth and rust seemed insignificant compared to the great bulk of the slab-sided buildings, massive cranes and huge hydraulic lifting systems. I've always liked Factories, even when I was just a boy and the only one I knew was the tiny one (in comparison to this) in my village of Bistritz which can only serve Maugrim – they are big and they are dramatic and they remind you of your place in the world.

It is often said – usually by people who have no familiarity with machinae, armchair Boyars as it were – that machina pilots view the mundane world as very small, as people out of armor and even those wearing ironclad suits as little more than insects to be crushed. They say that we are no longer awed by the great and the massive. Blasé even.

The truth is very different – while Maugrim can (and has) crush her way through wave after wave of infantry, shattering and burning whole villages, it is her that does that, at my instigation. Not a day goes by that I am not humbled by the awesome power that I wield; this dreadful she-wolf with the heart of a star, senses that stretch to the horizon and beyond, and wrath that burns like the sun and can make widows at a range of kilometers.

And, yes – I call her she, even though her name is used in an ancient tome for a male. It is, I suppose, a guy-thing – a macho touch of pride or protectiveness. She is the one I spend most of my time with, most of my life in, and on whom I rely for my daily bread and fame. Without her, I would be dead a thousand times over, not a Boyar, unable to defend my people or persecute those who are not.

It is perhaps simple vanity which makes this hunk of steel and titanium and polymer and alloy and ceramic a she. And perhaps it is that assumption of femininity which makes me affectionate towards her, to speak of her as a person, to care for her, to stroke her wounded armor plates and promise her a fresh paint job even when the underlying structure is undamaged.

But, even sitting thirty-feet above the ground in her cockpit and having information from kilometers around fed into my awareness, I was still awed and humbled by the massive in the world – the buildings of Dominik's Factory, the ancient edifices of the Vatican lurking in my mid-range radar. I shivered slightly, crossed myself, and then made to key the radio to speak with the Factory's administrator.

Something made me stop – Dominik was standing in front of the doors, speaking with a few harlequins. Dominik and I go way back – he fought with my father in the Peloponnesian War. And before you ask "Which one?", work it out – it began when I was a mere babe in arms. Dominik was a local machina pilot and my father was selling what my country has sold for centuries; mercenaries. He sold himself and Maugrim.

Part of me would like to say he sold the two of them to the highest bidder, but that's not true. Most of the Peloponnesian Wars have been between the local Christians – or a league drawn from south-eastern Europe, when they were lucky – and the Arabic barbarians. There was a lot of money coming out of the sands in those days – or, if not money, favors in terms of fuel and energy. Just because Maugrim's heart beats to the tender pulse of nuclear fission doesn't mean that everything does.

So my father was what people in the northern part of Europe would call "a good man". I don't know if he was – I never knew him. He died during that war, and Maugrim waited ten long years before I claimed her for my own. But I do know Dominik, who recovered Maugrim and my father's body, and who retired to the Papal States with a thank-you gift from my father's widow. He's been there ever since, and whenever I am in Rome I take Maugrim to him for repairs and overhaul – he knows her as well as I do, perhaps better. He has done well for himself, and I do not begrudge him his peace and stability – he is not a warrior at heart. Sometimes, I wonder if any of us are.

But he was standing in front of the doors, looking up at five harlequins. I must explain, for those of you who don't often visit Rome – the word "harlequins" is an ancient term which few today know the origins of. And it's not a nickname you want to use if you are face-to-visor with them. But, it refers to the bright motley colors of their armor; the red and blue and yellow and orange of the tactical ironclad suits of the Papal Swiss Guard.

As ironclads go, they are medium sized – a suit rather than a machina, massing a few tons and standing seven feet tall, armed with powerful infantry weapons. Their colors are gaudy and almost comical, and the inclusion of the vibro-halberd in their armory betrays their main purpose – close defense against other infantry. But don't let that fool you – they are as highly-trained as any force I have faced or battled alongside, and I have seen them do terrible things to mainline battle machinae who thought they could ignore the infantry.

Dominik pointed up at Maugrim – at me as well, I suppose – and the lead harlequin turned and looked at me, the plume on his helmet bobbing in the wind. I boosted the magnification on Maugrim's optics – he was a Hauptmann, a captain in another army.

I had no idea what interest the Swiss Guard might have in me – but I did know that, while I could have crushed all five of them to the ground with a few well-placed paws, if they wanted me dead there was no way I was getting out of the Papal States alive. And the chances of them being interested in me in that way were slim – I was a faithful Catholic in good standing and, while I was far from perfect, I still tended to think and fight like my father more often than not. The wounds on Maugrim's flanks and the limp in her stride were from Muslim missiles in the Balkans.

So I locked her legs and popped the hatch, hitting the release button on my restraint harness and vaulting easily out of the cockpit to land on her nose. I reached out and swung myself onto her neck, grasping the ladder and scrambling down her shoulder and foreleg to land on the ground beside her. I looked up at her, towering above me, steam venting from her twin exhausts and the odd spurt of hydraulic fluid or sparks spurting from damaged cables or hoses, and patted her affectionately. "I'll be alright, old girl – I promise," I said to her.

I tilted my head up at the harlequins. "Are you looking for somebody?" I asked in Latin – everyone spoke that, and I wasn't about to attempt to rely on my rusty German. The Hauptmann turned to me.

"Boyar Vladimir Hunyadi?" he asked. His voice was distorted and modulated by the vox-caster in his helmet, but – when I nodded – he raised an over-sized glove and snapped the mirror-glass visor upwards, revealing the face of a man about my age, pale from lack of sun.

Yeah, right – as if my complexion was bronzed.

"Hauptmann Wardenclyffe," he introduced himself, "Vatican Swiss Guard. The compliments of His Eminence Cardinal Griffin. He desires your presence at his table for dinner."

I had been walking towards Dominik, but I stopped. "As entrée or dessert?" I asked before I could stop myself. The harlequin didn't smile.

"His Eminence requests the pleasure of your company, Milord, at dinner this evening and also at the Papal mass for Palm Sunday this afternoon in Saint Peter's Basilica." His voice was ordered and polite, but I began to understand how some people believed the Swiss Guard were nothing more than robots, and not men in ironclads at all.

"What does the Cardinal want with me?" I asked. Wardenclyffe did not appear to be phased by the fact he didn't know.

"I am not privy to that information, Milord," he said. "The Cardinal has simply requested your presence and for me to offer you transport to the Vatican. Shall I take your refusal back to His Eminence?" I shook my head.

"Not at all, Hauptmann," I said politely. It did not do to offend one of the Princes of the Church – especially when you were in her territory. Griffin was well-known for being a bad man to fall foul of – he was not European, but seemed to understand the problems of the Old World well, and kept himself abreast of what was happening. Dinner with him would be instructive if nothing else.

And the Cardinals did not live poor mouth, either – they aren't called Princes of the Church for nothing. A good meal with a few glasses of fine wine would be appreciated, and I had to go to Mass for Palm Sunday anyway.

"Please tell the Cardinal I shall be delighted to attend and am at his disposal," I said. "First, however, I have some business to transact with the Factory Master; my machina requires repair." The Hauptmann shook his head.

"That will not be necessary, Milord," he said, "the Cardinal has instructed me to extend the courtesy of repair and overhaul of your machina in the Saint Dunstan Factory within the Papal city – a gift to you from him for the generosity of your time in meeting with him." He gestured at a small group of overall-clad mechanics waiting on a nearby train and the synthetic-fabric slings attached to the huge crane at one end of the flat platform that would comfortably fit Maugrim. "We can take your machina to Saint Dunstan's immediately – a full repair and overhaul will be completed by the second Sunday of Easter."

I looked at him with blank amazement. Saint Dunstan's! Dear Lord, that was perhaps the greatest machina factory in the western hemisphere, only rivaled by the Foundry in Britannia and perhaps Ravenstahl in Pittsburgh. Certainly the greatest on the Continent. Such accolades were, perhaps, hard to quantify or prove – for Saint Dunstan's did not simply take money in exchange for services. It was at Dunstan's that the Papal machinae were repaired, or the machinae of the kings of Christian Europe, perhaps the Emperor's. To be able to have work done there was simply amazing – I would be afraid of taking the machina into battle, fearful of damaging what would no doubt be a work of art.

"I am . . . stunned by the generosity of His Eminence and the Vatican in this regard," I managed to gasp. "I am more than willing to accept this most lavish gift, and hope that I will be in a position to repay it." As I spoke, I realized this was a two-edged sword – offered to me blade first. I would be insane to refuse this (even if I could without offending the Cardinal – something I had absolutely no desire to do) but it was clear that there would most likely be a price attached to it. And, given the fact this was Saint Dunstan's, the price would be high.

The Hauptmann bowed – no mean feat in an ironclad – and gestured at the train. "Shall we load your machina, Milord?" he asked. "We have a comfortable carriage to ride to the Vatican in." I returned the bow and gestured at Dominik.

"By all means, Hauptmann. Might I have a moment or two to speak with the Factory Master?" I did not wait for a response, but instead walked over to Dominik as the harlequin beckoned the mechanics over. The crane stirred to life and swung until it was hanging over Maugrim, the slings brushing against her. I gripped Dominik's wrist in the warrior's grip which he returned.

"Good to see you, Dom," I said softly. "Do you know what this is about?" He shook his heavy head – Dominik was larger than I, older, running to fat.

"No idea, Vlad," he rumbled – his voice was thick with years of cigarettes and alcohol. "They turned up a few minutes before you did, wanted to know where you were, when you'd be arriving. They didn't say anything about what they wanted you for – but you don't refuse the harlequins."

"No indeed," I remarked, as the shadow of Maugrim being lifted up and onto the train swung over us. I glanced over my shoulder – she was firmly settled, her paws being clamped to the deck with hydraulic docking claws. I turned back to Dominik, reaching into my pocket and pulling out a handful of large-denomination chips. I selected a couple. "Here," I said, offering it to him, "your men need to be paid – it's not fair that you should lose the business because of my good fortune." It wasn't the full price for a repair and overhaul – just the profit and a little more, enough to justify time already wasted.

Dominik shook his head, pushing the euros back towards me. "The harlequin already paid me twice the profit I'd have made from you," he explained. He looked at me carefully. "They must be very interested in you, Vlad – be careful there. The Vatican isn't like the rest of Europe."

"What is?" I said with a sardonic grin. I glanced over at the Hauptmann, who was half-watching me and half-watching Maugrim being clamped down. "Pray for me," I said, only half-joking. Dominik laughed.

"When you're done with the Cardinal, give me a call," he said. "We'll have some lamb and some ouzo and talk it over, hey?" I smiled and nodded – that sounded good and, in many ways, better than the promised minefield of the meal with the Cardinal. Dominik tilted his head at the Hauptmann. "He's waiting for you," he offered.

I glanced over my shoulder – it was true. I turned back to Dominik, gripping his wrist again. "His peace with you, Dom," I offered. He smiled.

"And His sword with you, Vlad," he said in reply. I clapped him on the shoulder and walked over to the Hauptmann – he was boarding the train, entering a carriage coupled in front of the flat deck Maugrim was standing on. Two harlequins stood guard on either side of the massive door, and I clambered aboard following Wardenclyffe. The Hauptmann glanced at me and pointed at a comfortable armchair next to which a young nun was standing. She dipped her head at me and gestured at the well-stocked bar built into the wall. I sat down in the chair as the train lurched forward and began to pick up speed.

"Just some tea, if you have it," I said to her, settling into the soft leather and casting a glance through the window behind me, making sure that Maugrim was safe and secure.