Inner Peace (Through Superior Firepower) – Episode 028
The morning dragged on, and Jillian's stomach went sour. She'd dutifully reported the encounter to her father's court by hat, and there wasn't much to discuss with her warlords once they'd settled on a plan.
Boredom in the field was its own kind of fight. She could only whet her sword or groom her mount so often on a trip. The birds were annoying; she was listening hard and kept thinking she was hearing enemies. Her head was pounding rhythmically at the temples.
Or... Or was that a drum?
From her back-sheath she drew Three-Edged, her huge sword. It was meant more as a signal to her units than for any good it would do her up here in the treetops. The war drum developed a counterpoint as it approached, going from a "thump, thump, thump, thump" to a less martial, "thump-bip-thump-bip-thump-brippity-thump-bip." A fife whistled out a birdlike jingle over top of it, as the sound drew still closer. Aha! Stupid birds.
Soon, the tinny strumming of a lute could be heard as well. But by now the enemy units could be spotted through the ground clutter. The Faq contingent tensed. A warlord in Haffaton's black and white livery led a band of High Elves into view. They moved in a scattered formation toward the small clearing below.
The warlord had a short sword at his belt, sheathed. He was singing brightly, "Titans row the boat ashore. Haffaton, yeah! Titans row the boat ashore. Haf-fa-to-on, yeah!"
The twenty or so elves were echoing his lines. Stacked under him were a number of men — Jillian automatically counted fifteen, of which nine had bows — and a dozen-ish uncroaked, which were also mostly archers.
These were fairly small numbers, with no heavies. So she had an overwhelming tactical advantage in the immediate fight. But if this encounter came to a fight, it might well cost the kingdom.
Yeah. This one could only be won with words.
She sheathed her sword and turned sidesaddle, hanging her legs over her gwiffon's flank in a nonthreatening posture. At her hand gesture, her archers relaxed their draws, but kept their arrows nocked. Princess Jillian knew how to make a good first impression when she had to.
The Haffaton warlord was gaunt and tall, wearing furs of some sort, and striding over the pine needles in step with his song. He looked right up at Jillian, not pausing his approach or his tune. He smiled at her, with a strange light in his eyes. "Titans open up that door. Haffaton, yeah! Titans know the final score. Haf-fa-to-on, yeah!"
The High Elf musicians brought the song to a conclusion with a little flourish and "brappity thump" of the hand drum. The enemy troops formed ranks behind their leader, with the elves grouped in a loose clump, looking up. The warlord touched his fingertips to his heart and showed his palms to Jillian with a confident smile.
"Welcome to our lands, strangers! We sometimes like to say that a stranger is a friend you haven't met yet!"
Jillian smiled back diplomatically and joked, "Really. Why only sometimes?"
"Oh!" said the warlord, looking momentarily perplexed. "I suppose because it's only true sometimes! Haha!"
Jillian chuckled, and a few of the troops on both sides did as well. A good start.
"I am Lord Christian Sidehug, of Haffaton," said the warlord, bowing slightly. "You may call me Chris, if you like. How may I address you, good Lady Warlord?"
And here is where it would get tricky. He'd be able to tell by looking at her that she was no barbarian. There had to be a treasury behind a force this large. He'd expect her to identify her side.
Also, her "Princess" title was dangerous. Royal sides were generally better known than non-Royals. Faq had hidden itself a thousand or more turns ago. The sides which had once known King Banhammer were far away or long gone. But Haffaton was very large and old, and it might have collected some commanders who still had memories from those distant places and times.
Jillian was used to evading questions about her identity, but never when the stakes were so high. Lying was an option, but it carried its own risks. What she wanted was to get out of here unmolested and anonymous. It was still Haffaton's turn, though; if this warlord thought she represented a threat or even a curiosity worth investigating in force, everything could unravel fast.
"You know, I think that 'Lady Warlord' has a nice ring to it," she said, trying to keep her tone lighthearted. "Why don't you stick with that?"
Chris' smile did not diminish, but turned a bit wry. "Cagey Lady Warlord! Very well. A person should be called what she wishes." His posture was easy, and his eyes twinkled with confidence. Jillian liked to think she was cool even when outnumbered, but this man eyes were not even taking stock of his opponent's contingent. Her own sharp eyes caught the fact that his little weapon was not merely sheathed...
No, he had just walked up to a large nest of enemy heavies and warlords without even unbuckling his sword.
Walked in singing.
"But from whence does the Cagey Lady Warlord hail? What is the Lady Warlord's intent in our lands? These are the questions of my mission. On that," he put an apology in his eyes, "I'm afraid Haffaton cannot indulge your reticence."
As he spoke, his bright teeth always showed, and his eyes twinkled with an absolute faith in...something. Jillian couldn't imagine what. She was a Level 7 Chief Warlord, and she had a Level 6 and a 2 under her command. This man was a Level 4, and she was scared to dust of him.
"Our only business here is to leave, Chris," she said. "Our intent was never to enter your battlespace at all. That was just..." Well, it would be undiplomatic to say "bad luck," so she simply trailed off and shrugged.
Chris nodded his head. "Fate decreed otherwise. Likely for a reason. So your intent is peaceful. Good! Then would you care to come down and share some refreshments? Trade stories, since we may never meet again?" Jillian hesitated for a moment, saying nothing. Chris quickly nodded again. "We'll make camp."
He gestured to the leader of his elves, an auburn-haired woman with a jeweled headband (she'd been the one playing the fife), who scattered her units to action. They spread out, unrolling tarpaulins and tents, and gathering rocks and wood for a fire circle.
"Come!" said Chris again, with a friendly beckon. "We have good chocolate, and tea. You look like a tea drinker. And we have...other things as well."
Jillian hated tea, almost as much as she would hate to dismount in the battlespace of Faq's most fearsome enemy.
She didn't know what "chocolate" might be, either. But she had no illusions about Haffaton's friendliness, even though the little she knew of them was based in rumor and legend. They were powerful in Hippiemancy, for one thing. They liked to "win by not fighting," whatever that meant. They were said to have as many as forty or even fifty cities, which was absurd, but might possibly be true. Certainly they had Faq surrounded, except for the southern side, where Transylvito lurked. (But that was no back door. You did not take flyers through Transylvito undetected.)
"I...I'm sorry, Chris. I'll have to decline that generous offer," she said, doing her best to sound regretful. "It's against my current orders." This was true only by the broadest interpretation, but would serve as an excuse.
"Oh, yes! You're a mercenary, correct?"
"Then come down and discuss business instead! We have need of air power such as this. We can make it very worth your while, I promise."
Oh, could they?
Despite the perils of the situation and the impossibility of working for Haffaton, Jillian couldn't help but be interested at the whiff of money. She had always assumed Haffaton was financially strapped. If they did have so many cities, then each one must only contribute the barest few Shmuckers to their treasury. After a certain number of city levels per side, the Shmuckers each city produced would begin to decline. Very large sides were hard to maintain, and had a habit of splitting off into new sides for the efficiency of it.
She had no idea how Haffaton might supply its upkeep, and that of its natural allies. Maybe it had good mines and farms. But it shouldn't be rich.
Of course, the other thing she knew about Haffaton was that they had a very powerful Croakamancer who stayed in the field. Uncroaked units were cheap. She looked at the skeletal archers standing behind Chris, and decided to change the subject, because she certainly could not hire out to Haffaton.
"I notice you have uncroaked," she pointed out.
Chris looked back at the units, then seemed a little embarrassed. "Indeed. They're...they're necessary, you know? I could have them withdraw, if they make you uncomfortable."
"Oh, no. I'd just heard rumors about your Croakamancer from other sides, and I was interested." This much was very true. For some reason, the few stories she had been told about Haffaton's master Croakamancer had kept her attention glued. Even mentioning her now gave Jillian a strange feeling at the base of her spine. "What's she like? Are these guys hers?"
"Yes," said Chris. This was as close as he had come to losing his smile. Some of the nearby elves looked away. "Lady Firebaugh is a fine...benefit to the side. I'm certain Haffaton wouldn't be as great if not for her work, and Dame Branch's of course. Will you not come down, Lady Warlord?"
"I really can't," said Jillian.
There was a long, deeply dangerous pause. She was sure he was going to politely "insist," and then she didn't know what she would do next. He cleared his throat.
"Lady Warlord," he said, almost apologetically. "I'm saddened. You've brought a powerful force to our territory, and you won't accept our hospitality. We'd like to take you at your word that you are peaceful. We'd like you for our friend. Perhaps we'd even like to hire you.
"But experience has taught us that the very secretive are often a threat to us. If we must deal with you as a threat, it wouldn't be...harmonious."
He let those words hang in the air.
Jillian swallowed. "We're no threat to Haffaton, Chris. That's ridiculous! I'll pinkie swear it if I have to."
"Then you have nothing to fear by identifying yourself," smiled the warlord. "Do you?"
Jillian shook her head. There were negotiations where she had the client side by the crotch. This wasn't turning out to be one of them. "I can't," she said helplessly. Behind her back, the hand Chris could not see was extracting a throwing knife from her saddlebag, just in case this went any worse.
His eyebrows went low. He stroked his chin. "Can't, because you're bound by orders? Or a contract?" His eyes suddenly went wide. "Are you working for Charlie?"
If Jillian hadn't been almost rigid with tension, she might have made an expression of disgust. Charlescomm, with its vast reach and specialty units, was her worst rival for mercenary work. She wouldn't any more work for Charlie than take tea with the enemy.
But some adrenaline-fueled part of her brain immediately grasped the opening. She knew enough about how Charlie worked. Her mouth moved mechanically saying, "I can neither confirm nor deny that." She kept her tone as flat and unbelievable as she could.
Chris laughed. "Oh. And he'd say the same thing, I'm sure!" he said, shaking his head with a grin. "Or say anything he was paid to tell us. I see, I see. Well. I'll message the capital, of course. But I think if you'll give us that pinkie swear, that will likely be enough for them.
"In the meantime, I believe we'll settle in for tea and chocolate," he said, clapping his hands with enthusiasm. He looked around as the camp was being assembled. There was a little fire going already. "Oh! And campfire songs!"