Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 7
King Shindig's fingers twitched, involuntarily, and the handle of the cup of tea snapped in his grip.
He'd lost his Farstrider Captain.
Shindig's mind was so far away because of the shock that he didn't hear the smashing of the tea cup against the dinning table's surface or the concerned questioning from his daughter, his Chief Signamancer, and the captain of the knights. But Shindig did feel the clumsily dabbing napkin of Jeans as the stuffed shirt said, "Allow me, Sir."
"Stand down, Jeans, I have it," said Shindig.
Contrary to his statement, though, Shindig did not even attempt to clean himself of the tea that had splashed about him and the plate of food served for lunch. Though it had been a tasty treat a minute before hand, it now had as much value to him as a plate of sand.
The captain of his Farstriders had fallen. Unilaterally defeated. Shindig had failed. Again.
Looking up from his plate of what he had once considered food, Shindig looked into the eyes of his concerned daughter. Her deep brown eyes that all of his children had possessed, so different from his own light green. The same brown eyes as Meme.
Oh, Titans, the wonders you work, and the hidden blessings within them. The omnipresent reminder of his greatest joys and his greatest failures, right there within those eyes.
No. Shindig had not failed, yet. It was a set back, but salvageable. Shindig had hoped that Warlord Shades would be able to surmount the obstacle that was Charlie, but obviously he'd allowed his ideals to get ahead of his practicality. Or perhaps it was his faith, in the Titan's blessing or in their design. No, theory crafting had to come later. But obviously, Shindig had miscalculated combat values. Not against the still unknown invaders, but against Charlie.
After all, only Charlie could have performed the impossible actions that had happened the past several turns.
When Whatever fell, King Shindig had felt a type of... dissonance is the only word that would come close to that sensation, in his sense as the ruler of the side. It had only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to corrupt his sense of what side had taken Whatever. And the wholesale croaking of skilled Farstriders in the field. Finding them so swiftly, and disposing of them so surely.
It could only have been Charlie. Shindig knew this. Because he had once made such liberal use of Charlie's services that he had a small measure of his capabilities, enough knowledge to know for a fact that there was nearly nothing Charlie couldn't do when paid enough.
When the impossible occurred, you would find Charlie close by. And so Shindig had risked his Captain, to see how the Shindig of today measured up against Charlie. It was foolish in hindsight, a bit of competitive immaturity. But Shindig had needed to know. Yet now was not the time for self-recriminations nor inner reflection. It was the time for action. The location where Warlord Shades had fallen in battle could only indicate one course of action, one path of attack that was profitable enough for Charlie to get involved in such a risky and long term assault.
Their target was Everclear itself. Charlie was aiming for the capital and her treasury as the pay off, or, at the very least, a "modest" percentage of the treasury.
An army was on it's way. And thanks to Warlord Shades' sacrifice, Shindig knew. Not his enemy's numbers, nor their plan, but Shindig now had proper warning and the time to make preparations.
"Art," said Shindig, ignoring and quieting the entire dining table with one word. "You have until start of turn tomorrow to hire a dependable Lookamancer. Save what Shmuckers you can, but come back with one that we can rely on."
Art's face went pale and stiff. He nibbled his lip for the briefest of moments, stood up and said, "I'd better get to the Magic Kingdom now then."
"Father?" questioned Sasha.
"One moment, Art," said Shindig. And then he willed an action as part of his role as ruler of the side, and Art's personal wallet was filled. "Now you may go."
Art's face was appalled, horrified, and confused. He'd been alive long enough, heard enough stories in the Magic Kingdom, even helped some down and outers when he could to know exactly what such an action meant. But he was compelled by the Order inherent in the King's conversational sentence and left the room without saying a word, looking like he'd be sick at a moment's notice.
"Father, what did you just do?"
Then both Sasha and Dame Montoya's wallets were filled to capacity as well, and they gasped with the shock.
"Dame Montoya, organize all the elves in the capitol to begin marching when our turn starts. I am popping another hundred of each tribe this turn, and I want them outfitted with High King Boots before leaving."
The High King Boots were another benefit to the side's Dirtamancer. He dabbled in Dollamancy, knowing only the basics of the craft and the Stuffed Shirts were the most advanced form his magic took. The Dirtamancer had originally done so for the sake of being able to make his own Flannel shirts, but branched out a little bit. One of the things he'd invented was the High King Boot, crafted especially for Shindig who was the only non-Natural Ally unit in the side that did not have the forestry movement special. The boots had the most basic of Movement magic in them, mitigating the penalties for forest terrain on non-forestry units. Shindig still remembered the conversation where Art had insisted on a specific name for the boot type, calling it Branding. So the High King Boots were made and named. Shindig was wearing a pair at table, with a dim, almost unnoticeable HiKi on the side with a fancy underline beneath the word.
The boots had gained a high tactical value, and the Dirtamancer had orders to use all his spare juice to produce more and magic hat them to the capitol whenever possible. The dungeon had rooms filled with crates of them for just such times, when the side needed an instant surplus of natural allies to be equipped.
"You will leave for the fortress of Neverever with Everclear's garrison, the knighthood, the flyers, and all but ten of each of the tribes. The garrison of Eveready will march to meet you at Neverever to intercept the enemy."
Dame Maple was reeling from the shock of such a drastic change of plans from the previous day. "My Lord," she managed to squeeze out, Duty compelling her, "The reinforcements from Everbilt have not yet arrived. Such a move would leave the capitol with the barest of defenses. You would be vulnerable."
"Are you questioning my orders?"
Dame Maple blanched, looking into the eyes of her king. Eyes she had never seen before, with a naked ferocity and urgency that had never before been directed at her, and she froze.
"Yes!" shouted Sasha. "You cannot ask me to leave you unprotected, father, not without good reason!"
"I have ordered it, is that not good enough!?"
"No! What is going on! Why are you doing this, father? Why!?"
Shindig looked his daughter in the eyes, his heretofore unknown look boring into her. But she didn't back down. A worthy successor to her eye's Signamancy. "We have an enemy coming for us, and you are to meet him in the field."
"But Neverever is no where close to However, father. It's the west side's final fortress, why would you-"
"Their target was never However. Was it, my Lord?" asked Dame Maple as she finally caught her breath.
"...Warlord Shades has proven the raids were merely a feint. Judging by his final coordinates, the invaders have only one goal. A strike at the capital while bypassing all other fortifications. As such, I will be having you meet them in the field with Neverever as the staging point. Farstrider Cam will join you there to command the remaining Farstriders."
"Cam?" asked Sasha, utterly confused. "Warlord Shades is the Captain of the Farstriders, why would Cam be the one to command them?"
"Because Warlord Grey Shades has been defeated by the invaders, and he elected Cam to replace him at the last strategy meeting." Shindig did not hesitate in his response, stunning Sasha with his blunt words. Sasha turned her head to look at Dame Maple, to see if she was as stunned as herself, but saw that the Captain of the knighthood had inferred it already. In hindsight, Sasha understood, she realized. Why else would her father call for a Lookamancer so soon before the promised time granted to Warlord Shades had ended. It was because he'd been croaked, like all the other Farstriders.
Sasha leaned back in her chair so fast it was closer to a fall, and just stared at empty air, reading the contents of her wallet over and over again. And she understood, the actions of a ruler. Her father was preparing for the fall of the side. Everything was so clear, so horrifyingly clear.
"Dame Montoya, go see to the logistics of my orders."
"Yes, my Lord."
As Dame Maple stood, Shindig finished the second half of his order to her. "And make sure to stay stacked with my daughter at all times while off turn."
Dame Maple's face went even more rigid, and it was a few moments before she swallowed hard, and softly said, "Yes, my Lord."
With Dame Maple leaving the room, Shindig stood up and said to his daughter, "Please excuse me. There are some dispatches I must write," and left his daughter alone in the dining hall, staring at empty air as the food grew cold on the table.
The only sound in the chamber was that of Jeans clearing the plates, having sensed the meal had come to an end.
* * * * *
Cam had had an interesting climb in order to get into position to watch the city of Dipstick belonging to Shortbus. The city lay close to Stopgap's borders, and was of very little strategic importance. The only reason either side wanted it was to increase their city count. In the long history between Stopgap and Shortbus, that city had changed hands more often than can be counted by anyone. The reason being how tactically insignificant the city was, meaning there was never a reason to assign many resources to guarding it for very long.
Everclear was counting on that in sending Cam to reconnoiter, to get troop deployment and number information to sell to Stopgap and start a little dust up between the sides. Drain their treasuries a little so they'll have other things on their minds instead of attempting to take chunks of Everclear's territory for themselves. It was a tactic Everclear found enormously successful. Selling just enough information on "easier targets" to the neighboring sides to keep them interested in warring with each other and not with Everclear.
And from that vantage point on the granite cliff face, Cam could see that Shortbus had indeed pulled most of their veteran forces and were popping basic infantry to prop up the city's numbers while they were away. Should be information worth paying for.
Wrapped in the granite grey tinted Farstrider's cloak on an outcropping, Cam diligently counted troop numbers and types in preparation for writing the dispatches to King Shindig and Grey Shades. Then Cam's hat rumbled.
A slim gauntleted hand slid out of the overlapped folds of the cloak, removed the beret from inside the cowl, and a young woman's voice whispered, "Houdini" while the other hand tapped the underside of the hat with a tiny wand. A piece of paper materialized from inside the hat which Cam pulled out and unfolded. Cam left her red hat in her lap to minimize exposure while she read the message.
Warlady Cam, you are hereby promoted to the position of Captain of the Farstriders, as per the recommendation of the previous Captain, Warlord Grey Shades, may the Titans have mercy on his soul. As such, you are hereby recalled from your current assignment. You will soon receive orders for movement and mount a waiting bluebird to begin traveling to Neverever to take commend of the remaining Farstriders in harrying the enemy that has robbed us of the previous Farstrider Captain.
With the Titan's blessings.
Shindig, King of Everclear.
And pressed into the paper in the bottom right hand was a seal of wax, the King's signet ring imprinted in it. There could be no mistake.
The first tear smeared King Shindig's signature, and the second smeared the Titan's blessings. The third and fourth fell on blank parchment that had been accidentally crushed by shaking hands.
It was unbelievable, but there could be no mistake. Grey had been croaked. The man that saved her life, took her in when both her mind and her side had been destroyed, gave her a purpose and a home to serve, had been croaked. Grey was most certainly the most important person she had ever had in all the time she could remember, perhaps even for her entire life. He'd been there and helped her when she'd needed it most, when there was absolutely no reason for him to help her. Too save her. Cam was not a royal, she'd never had a real family, but Grey had felt like an older brother to her. He'd been precious in a way that Cam had never felt about anyone else, not even among the other Farstriders who accepted her as one of their own.
The one wisp of hair Cam could never seem to tie back shook under the cover of the cowl as Cam continued to shake from her silent tears, tears that could not stop. She had nothing else she could do until start of turn but mourn. When the turn did finally start, and Cam began to climb the cliff face to start the long trip back to Everclear territory, Cam had come to her resolution. She was going to do everything humanly possible to live up to Grey's legacy, and to make the ones that croaked him pay for robbing her of her family.
Cam's feelings were not unique that day. As the dispatches rolled out across the realm of Everclear, into the hats of the Farstrider Warlords, there was not a one that was not filled with sadness. Every Farstrider that learned of their captain's fate mourned his loss heavily, and then was filled with a fiery determination to take revenge.
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here.
What, you guys seriously think I'm not capable of killing an important character to build drama and evoke emotional turmoil in all the remaining characters, especially when I have a new character being introduced right here that is literally taking Grey Shade's place? And I like how you guys are just glossing over the letter asking the Titans to have mercy on Grey's soul.
I guess I should have chosen my wording a little better in this update. But now you all see why I named it Shadows of the Evergreen.
For me, the reason it seems unlikely he died has nothing to do with drama--it doesn't jive with what the archons said in the previous chapter:
"Hold back some, Ann, he's a Warlord! You know our orders!", (when they first start attacking)
"Acquire", (when right in front of him) and
"Acquired" (when he's passing out at the archon's feet)
By the way, this is a great story!