Apekhuri craned his big head upward, inhaled through his nostrils, and let out a deep rumbling growl from his mouth of blade-like teeth. The tyrannosaur’s tail swayed behind him as he sat crouched within the wall of jungle that reared alongside a moss-stained road.
Rashekhu, Queen of Djakhem, stroked the deep green scales on her mount’s neck while murmuring an incantation to calm his temper. She could hear the giant predator’s stomach grumble with a hunger for fresh meat that had grown over the past week’s southward march. With a voice as soft as that of a mother reassuring her child, the young Queen promised Apekhuri that he would have more than enough to gorge on before sundown.
Other than the normal chorus of bird squawks, insect chirps, and monkey hoots, the jungle lay silent on both sides of the road. Even from atop the saddle behind her tyrannosaur’s neck, Rashekhu could see little of the force she had laid out before her. Armed men and women lay beneath the cover of undergrowth and creepers, as did the packs of feathered deinonychus hired to protect their flanks. Only the tiniest glint of bronze weaponry and jewelry of gold and copper could betray anyone’s presence.
It was as Rashekhu had planned. The forces of Nekhubta would not know what struck them until it was too late.
Perspiration streamed down the Queen’s dark brown skin and stained her halter-top with dark wet spots. Even under the shade of the treetops, an unrelenting muggy heat permeated the depths of the jungle. Again Apekhuri growled with anxious hunger, and this time Rashekhu did not bother to stop him. She too had wearied of waiting.
The forest’s tranquility ended with the growing rumble of war drums from further south. Then came the cracking of the road’s stony pavement underneath the beating of heavy feet, the chanting and whooping of warriors, and the barks and hissing growls of deinonychus. Further away echoed the bellowing of an ankylosaur, a creature as sacred to Nekhubta as the tyrannosaur was to Djakhem.
Since the two kingdoms shared the same Ta’Sutjan heritage, the Nekhubtan army that marched northward up the road resembled Rashekhu’s own for the most part. The men wielded bronze spears and sickle-swords, the women bows and javelins, and both sexes oval shields of tough saurian hide as their protection. Serrated bronze blades capped the talons of the deinonychus cantering alongside the human soldiers.
However, it was not a tyrannosaur whom the lanky King Montukep of Nekhubta rode. Instead, he had his saddle perched on the broad, spiky back of the ankylosaur which lumbered on its four legs within the army’s central rank.
Even from a distance, Rashekhu could see the vain grin on Montukep’s boyish face. No doubt, like any Ta’Sutjan king on the warpath, he imagined himself and his minions sacking and plundering the towns on Djakhem’s southern frontier, if not breaking into the heart of the kingdom and conquering it all for his own glory. And if he was like most men, Montukep probably awaited to hold Rashekhu’s hand in forced marriage, as a token of his victory over her people.
The Queen of Djakhem bared her teeth in a vicious snarl. Whatever delusions of grandeur and stolen wealth her enemy entertained, she would shatter them in an instant.
She raised her bow straight up to the air and shrieked the war cry of Djakhem. “Onward, we attack!”
On her command, Apekhuri blasted out his most thunderous roar while her warriors burst out of cover, reciting their Queen’s battle scream. Bows twanged and gold-bangled arms swung in arcs as the Djakheman women rained arrows and javelins upon the stupefied Nekhubtan flanks, many of whom fell before they even had time to lift their shields overhead. After this initial volley, the men of Djakhem hollered with bloodlust as they stabbed and hacked through the loosened enemy ranks. Even more piercing were the screeches of the deinonychus as they sprang into a frenzy of slashing and biting.
The acrid stench of gore and spilled entrails swamped the once musty air. Rashekhu made no effort to restrain her tyrannosaur as he stormed into the clamorous fray. Bones, weapons, and shields crunched as Apekhuri trampled the Nekhubtans under his three-toed feet and swept them away with his thick, long tail. Those were the ones lucky enough to escape the crushing grasp of his jaws, the most powerful of any beast ever to walk on land.
In addition to the carnage her nine-ton steed wrought, Rashekhu picked off those further away with a rapid succession of arrows. The muscles of her forelimbs stretched and blazed from constant exertion as she shot. Yet any strain the Queen of Djakhem might have felt was drowned under her gleeful fury.
She heard the wet crack of something piercing through flesh and bone. Apekhuri lurched back with a shrill roar of pain, almost knocking Rashekhu off her saddle. Only by tugging onto a leather strap around the tyrannosaur’s neck was she able to stay on.
“You got carried away and forgot about me, didn’t you?” King Montukep cackled as he waved his lance, which dripped red fluid from a puncture wound he had inflicted on Apekhuri’s shoulder. His ankylosaur swatted away a gang of Rashekhu’s deinonychus with its club-tipped tail.
Rashekhu snarled a curse as she snatched one more arrow from her quiver and sent it towards the King of Nekhubta. With a backward tilt of his body, he dodged it, and the arrow plunged into the ankylosaur’s coarse back. The armored plant-eater honked with rage as it hurled its tail-club into Apekhuri’s thigh. As the tyrannosaur jolted in recoil from this second assault, Rashekhu fell off and landed on the blood-slicked road below with a splash.
A Nekhubtan spearman loomed over her with a fiendish laugh, ready to drive his weapon into her breast. If he succeeded, she would lose not only her life or the battle. She would lose her people’s freedom.
The image of their suffering at the hands of these invaders was enough to spark the Queen back to full strength. She jumped back to her feet, punched the brute up his jaw, and tore his spear from his clutches as he collapsed to the ground. After finishing him off with a thrust into his abdominals, Rashekhu spun around and fought her way through the chaos until she reached her steed’s shadow.
Apekhuri and the ankylosaur had begun to circle each other, exchanging growls and bellows while taking turns to evade the other’s lunging attacks. The King of Nekhubta laughed with cruel delight as he tortured the tyrannosaur with more pokes of his lance. Once Montukep jabbed into the very spot on his thigh that the ankylosaur’s tail-club had hit earlier, Apekhuri staggered away with a whimpering groan.
Montukep drew his lance overhead for a throw aimed at the wounded carnivore’s breast. “Soon, we shall see how you fare without your trusty tyrannosaur, Queen of Djakhem!”
Rashekhu replied only with a wordless smirk before chucking her captured spear all the way into the King’s chest.
The impaled Montukep yelled a final curse as he flew off his mount. The ankylosaur moaned with shock as it turned its head to see where its rider had fallen. It could not have counted on Apekhuri seizing the opportunity to dig his snout under its neck and push up against its weight. With a series of shoves, the tyrannosaur managed to overturn his adversary onto its spike-studded back, exposing the softer-skinned belly to the light of the noontime sun. It took only one bone-shattering bite to slay the ankylosaur once and for all.
“Our King has fallen!” a distressed cry rang out from the surviving Nekhubtans. Trumpets hewn from ceratopsian horns blared around the battlefield, and the once proud force that Montukep had commanded started to break away from the fight and stampede southwards to whence they had come. Their panicked screams, and even the screeches of their deinonychus, died away with their disappearance, leaving only the jungle’s usual birdsong and buzzing of insects.
Rashekhu, Queen of Djakhem, fell to her knees and panted under the burden of exhaustion. All around her stood what remained of her warriors amidst the carnage, their bodies and loincloths speckled with gore. Between a quarter and a half of her army must have fallen in the fighting, much more than she had hoped. Gazing up to the sun, Rashekhu whispered a prayer that their spirits would return to a blissful reunion with their ancestors in the Afterworld.
Despite the heavy toll they had suffered, the men and women who had fought for Djakhem brandished their weapons and shields with triumphant vigor, chanting a song of celebration while stamping their feet. Even the deinonychus seemed content as they feasted on the surrounding mess of corpses, much as Apekhuri gorged himself on the ankylosaur he had slain.
Rashekhu walked over to her tyrannosaur and stroked his blood-soaked snout. “You fought like a champion, mighty Apekhuri. We all did. The people of Djakhem shall sleep well with the knowledge that they are safe again.”