The Horde, Part Four

Part 4 of 13 in The Horde

 

Part Four: The Long Way

by Thomas K. Martin

 

Ornella waited in the tower of Arboria for the dawn.  Soon the city’s first warlord would pop and she would be on her way back to Mango City.  It was almost a shame.  She would miss her mighty city in the forest.  It was so much more pleasant here than back in the endless grass around Mango City.

 

The light of dawn streamed in through the windows of her living tower, filtered green by the leaves above them.  There was a pop of displaced air as the city’s new unit exploded into being at the entrance to the throne room.  Ornella rose to her feet in surprise.

 

“Titans be disbanded!” she exclaimed.

 

“Such language, Princess,” the caster at the throne room’s entrance replied.  He was clad in a black hooded robe and his face was covered by a golden mask.  His eyes were clearly visible behind the mask, however, and Ornella did not like the way they stared coldly back at her.

 

“I am no princess, caster,” she said, unable to completely hide her distaste.  There was something about this man she did not like.

 

“Introduce yourself to the court!” she ordered.

 

“I am Klytus Soulreader,” he said evenly.  “Thinkamancer in service to the glorious court of Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn, Master of Horses and Lord of the Skies.”

 

Ornella stared at the new caster.  Her mind told her that this was a good thing – Mangolia needed casters to be strong.  But her gut told her not to trust this creature.  What was she supposed to do now?  It would be another six turns before the city could pop a warlord and her orders were to manage the city until that happened.

 

She did not have long to wonder.  New orders formed in her mind from her father, the overlord.  Prepare a feast and guest quarters for the overlord’s arrival this turn!  How was she supposed to do that?  Arboria had not popped any twolls yet.  This…caster was the first unit the city had popped.

 

As her mind raced, another surprise arrived in the tinkling of a wind chime and a blast of trumpets.  Blinding sparkles filled her vision as the city was unexpectedly upgraded.  Arboria was now the only level three city in Mangolia, except for the capital.  This would hasten the arrival of the next warlord by two turns.

 

“My, things certainly seem to happen quickly around here,” Klytus commented.

 

“Silence!” Ornella commanded, turning to her knights.  “Each of you, go grab a stack of stabbers and report to the kitchens.  We have to prepare a feast for the arrival of the overlord, this turn!  Wait, Amelia, your stack will prepare the largest guest chamber for my father’s arrival.  Now go!”

 

Ornella watched as her troops scampered to obey her orders.  There was only one way her father could possibly arrive this turn.  Mango City must have popped another four warhawks since she had left.  It occurred to her that, as a level three city, Arboria would now be able to pop warhawks as well.

 

“Hmm,” Klytus said not quite to himself, interrupting her thoughts.

 

“What is it, caster?” Ornella asked.

 

“A curious thing,” Klytus replied.  “I cannot sense the overlord with my thinkamancy.  I can sense every other unit in the side – even yourself, but not him.”

 

“Keep your slimy fingers out of my mind,” Ornella ordered.  “Come, I must conduct my patrol of the city before my father arrives.  You will tell me what it is that you can do for the side.”

 

“As you command, warlady,” Klytus replied.  Even his voice felt…oily.

 

* * *

 

Arboria was certainly not what Minghis had expected.  He had known that the tower was wooden, but also that it had a ridiculously high defensive value, so he had not changed Ornella’s design when he initially upgraded the city.  Now that it was a level three, its defensive value was as high as Mango City’s level four.

 

However, he had not expected the tower to be a tree.  He guided his hawk down to one of the wooden platforms.  Followed by the other three hawks in his stack.  Two of the beasts were piloted by Ornella’s hand-picked knights, but Sonja commanded the fourth.  Minghis climbed down from the saddle, grateful for the firm platform beneath his feet.

 

“Ornella built this?” Sonja asked once they were both safely standing on their own two feet.  She was looking around at the city from their vantage point high in the tree’s branches.

 

“Apparently,” Minghis replied.  He was looking up at the tree itself.  Its branches spread out over almost the entire courtyard and were more than thick enough to support several stacks of archers – or even warhawks.  An enemy might not even see them before the birds dropped on them.  It was…formidable.

 

“Hail Minghis Mango,” Ornella’s voice called, interrupting his inspection of the city.  “Light of the Dawn, Master of Horses and Lord of the Skies.”

 

Minghis turned to face her and returned her salute.  The new caster stood beside her along with her three knights.  He was not what Minghis had expected.  Of course, Minghis had not truly known what to expect.  Cashcarry was the only caster Minghis had ever known.  This one was certainly not like him.

 

“Thinkamancer,” Minghis said sternly, “I ordered you to contact me before my arrival.  Why have you not done so?”

 

“I was unable to do so, Sire,” Klytus replied as Ornella’s knights led the hawks away.  “For some reason, I am unable to reach you, or even sense you, with thinkamancy.  I now believe that your helmet may be the reason.”

 

Minghis blinked in surprise.  His helmet?  He reached up and removed the helmet from his head.

 

“Ah!” Klytus exclaimed.  “Now I can sense your mind, Sire.  Apparently your helmet shields you from thinkamancy.”

 

Minghis looked down at the helmet in his hands.  Perhaps it was time to hire a hat magician as Cashcarry had suggested to determine exactly what this could do.  With the arrival of Klytus it would no longer be necessary to purchase sending hats as Cashcarry had also suggested.  He would instruct Cashcarry to hire a suitable caster as soon as he returned to Mango City.

 

“Very well,” Minghis said, turning to Ornella.  “Are our chambers prepared?”

 

“Yes, father,” Ornella replied with a smile.  “Come and I will show you.  The feast awaits us as soon as you are settled.”

 

* * *

 

Arboria’s larder popped foods that were not available in Mango City.  Ornella’s father seemed especially pleased with the roast venison and had taken a second serving of the strongly flavored meat.  The food was served by stabbers with only her father, Sonja, Klytus, herself and her knights in attendance.

 

“So, father,” Ornella asked as he ate, “what do you think of my city?”

 

“I am impressed,” Minghis replied and Ornella could not help but smile proudly at his praise.  “Perhaps you will show me more of it after dinner?  I may need to visit Khan’s new city as well.  Its defensive values are as high as Arboria’s were before it was upgraded.”

 

“Khan discovered a new city as well?” Ornella asked, her smile dimming a little.

 

“Yes, he named it Sky City,” Minghis told her.  “It is in hills.  I doubt it is as…imaginative as Arboria, however.”

 

“It is not,” Klytus assured them.  “If you will allow me, sire?”

 

“Proceed,” Minghis commanded.  Klytus gestured and a blurry, colorless image of a city appeared in the space next to the table.  Minghis rose from his seat and inspected the phantasm.  Sky City sat atop a tall hill with a mighty tower in the center, taller than even the tower at Mango City.  The rough hills surrounding it were what gave it its defensive bonus.

 

“How dull,” Ornella noted.

 

“But it is strong,” Minghis pointed out.  “Thank you, Klytus.”

 

“I live to serve, Sire,” Klytus responded.  “If we had a proper foolamancer, he could have shown you a much clearer image.”

 

“Can you show me the terrain around the city?” Minghis asked.  “Say, three or four hexes out?”

 

“I am afraid not, Sire,” Klytus replied.  “I can only show you places where our units have already been.  The images are drawn from their memories.”

 

Ornella shuddered at the thought of Klytus sifting through her memories.  Fortunately no one seemed to notice.

 

“Unfortunate,” Minghis said.  He looked back at the feast table.

 

“I believe I have had enough,” he said.  “Mangolia has no use for a fat overlord.  Ornella, would you like to show me more of your city?”

 

“I would be honored,” Ornella said.

 

“Perhaps I could accompany you, Sire?” Klytus asked.  Ornella tried to think of a valid reason to object, but could not.

 

“No,” Minghis replied much to Ornella’s relief.  “I would like to spend a few moments alone with my daughter.  You and I will have ample time to talk next turn.”

 

“Of course, Sire,” Klytus agreed.

 

* * *

 

Minghis looked at Arboria’s massive fountain.  Water dripped almost like rain from the leaves of the carved tree into the basin below.  They sat on stone benches made to resemble carved logs as they watched.  It was strangely soothing.

 

“Ornella,” Minghis began, “you have spent an entire turn with this new caster.  What think you?”

 

“Uh,” Ornella said, obviously taken aback by the question.  “I…that is…”

 

“Speak freely, my daughter,” Minghis assured her.

 

“I do not like him,” Ornella blurted out.  “I do not trust him and I do not know why.”

 

“He is…unsettling,” Minghis agreed.  “But his talents are greatly needed by the tribe.  You have seen nothing to support these…feelings of yours?”

 

“No, father,” Ornella admitted.  “If anything he is…submissive.  But it feels wrong, somehow.”

 

“I will bear what you have said in mind,” Minghis told her.  “But do not speak of such things with anyone but me, is that clear?”

 

“Yes, father,” Ornella agreed.

 

* * *

 

He awoke at dawn the next turn with the sensation of new arrivals to the tribe.  A warlord had popped in Sky City which meant that Khan would meet him back in Mango City today.  Ornella would remain here to manage Arboria for another three turns until the warlord popped here.

 

Minghis climbed from the bed and Sonja rolled over to reach for him.

 

“We have much to do this turn,” Minghis told her.  “We need to bring this new caster back to the capital and then he and I will spend what time there is left in the war room.”

 

“Yes, my lord,” Sonja agreed.

 

* * *

 

It was long after the end of the turn when he and Klytus had finished in the war room.  Klytus had extracted the last piece of information he could from the minds of Minghis’ warlords about the terrain surrounding the cities of Mangolia.  The freshly painted tiles Gomar had crafted were laid out on the map and yet it was still mainly blank.

 

Douglas had found, and claimed, two more farms near Khanate, but there were no twolls to send to manage them.  He could interrupt the warlord that Khanate was currently popping, but that would throw away two turns of production.  As soon as this next batch of hawks popped, Mango City would begin popping twolls.

 

Klytus had suggested an alliance with the ho elves to work the farms, but Minghis had rejected that.  He had no desire to build up a force that he would have to destroy once they left these cities.  Klytus and Gomar had long since left the war room, leaving Minghis alone to stare at the fruits of their labor.  Once Douglas completed this last circuit of the city, Minghis would send him along the northeast road out of Khanate.  He suspected that road would lead to Sky City, but it was not impossible for another city to lie between them.

 

He could send Lawrence, Moe and Kherlen out to the other cities, but he would need to pop more hobby horses first, and promote stabbers to knights, which would leave the city with far too few stabbers…

 

“Disband it!” he shouted, slamming his palms down on the side of the map table.

 

“My lord?” he heard Sonja say quietly behind him.  He turned to see her standing at the entrance to the war room, in full battle gear.

 

“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” he asked her.

 

“Shouldn’t you?” she replied.  “I woke and you were not there.”

 

“So you put on all of your armor before coming to find me?” he asked with a smile.  Sonja laughed, a short snort of derision.

 

“As if I would do anything else?” she asked in reply, walking up to him and taking him in her arms.  “What troubles you?”

 

“Everything,” he said.  “I need everything and I can only pop so much.”

 

“One turn at a time, my love.”

 

“Every turn, is another turn that an enemy may find us,” Minghis said.  “Another turn that could spell our doom.”

 

“Even now, an enemy would not find us an easy meal,” Sonja assured him.  “And every turn that passes only makes you stronger.  Come to bed, my lord.  It will do none of us any good for you to torment yourself so.”

 

“Perhaps you are right,” Minghis agreed, taking one last look at the map.  Tomorrow he could send Dalia out to Ornate with Khan’s knights.  She could begin exploring the terrain around that city…

 

He almost didn’t notice as Sonja led him from the war room by his hand.

 

* * *

 

The hat magician turned Minghis’ helmet over in his hands as he examined it.  Cashcarry had found this man in the Magic Kingdom and signed him to a contract which bound him to not reveal anything about their side or the helmet to anyone but Minghis and his casters.

 

“You say you found this in a ruin?” Sooss, the hat magician, asked.  “The very place in which you grew in?”

 

“Yes,” Minghis said.  The caster had strange signamancy.  As far as Minghis could tell, he was human, but he was unusually pale except for the tip of his nose which was bright red.  He wore a tall, red and white striped hat that didn’t quite stand up straight and a strange black and white suit with a large red bow around his neck.  Minghis resolved that he would never think of Cashcarry as odd again…

 

“It certainly is very strong,” Sooss said.  “May I?  It won’t take long.”

 

That last question was accompanied by a gesture as if to don the helmet.  Minghis nodded his agreement and, to his surprise, the hat magician put the helmet on the top of his own hat.

 

“Cavanagh, Lock, Stetson and Fox,” Sooss intoned.  He then sat silent with his eyes closed for several moments as Minghis and his two casters watched.  After a while Minghis glanced over to Cashcarry who motioned for him to be patient.

 

“Oh my!” Sooss suddenly exclaimed, his eyes opening wide.  “Oh my, oh my, oh my!”

 

“What is it?” Cashcarry asked.  The hat magician removed the helmet from atop his strange hat and handed it back to Minghis.

 

“This is indeed a special helm,” Sooss replied.  “Perhaps the greatest in this realm.  Thinkamancy cannot read, and foolamancy has to cede.  By two your leadership will rise and half is given to allies.  If in your hex they do remain, then half your bonus will they gain.”

 

“What?” Minghis said.  “What does all of that mean?”

 

“It functions as a standard thinking cap,” Cashcarry explained.  “It protects your mind from thinkamancy and foolamancy.  But it also raises your leadership bonus and gives half your bonus to any ally in your hex.”

 

“Half of my total bonus, or only half of the helmet’s bonus?” Minghis asked.

 

“Uh…” Cashcarry said, turning back to the hat magician.

 

“Half of all it will provide, to any whom you have allied,” Sooss explained.

 

“Father, this is an extremely powerful item,” Cashcarry said.

 

“I would go so far as to say ‘artifact’, Sire,” Klytus added.  “No single caster could have fashioned this item.  I don’t believe it could have been made by linked casters, either.”

 

“I see,” Minghis said.  “Thank you, Lord Sooss.”  The hat magician rose from his seat and bowed deeply to Minghis.

 

“The pleasure has indeed been mine.  Now, if my palm you would but line?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“He’s asking for the rest of his fee,” Cashcarry explained.

 

“Oh, of course,” Minghis agreed.  And no sooner had he agreed than another thousand shmuckers vanished from the treasury.  Sooss bowed deeply.

 

“My work with you has been sublime.  Feel free to call me…anytime.”

 

“Klytus, see our guest to the portal, please,” Minghis ordered.

 

“Of course, sire.”

 

Minghis sat there, staring at the helmet in his hands.  When he had found this on his first turn of life, he had no idea what a treasure had fallen into his possession.  Minghis looked up to where Klytus had just led their guest out of the throne room.

 

“What a strange man,” Minghis noted.

 

“I’ve seen stranger,” Cashcarry assured him.

 

* * *

 

Minghis sat on the throne examining the woman that Ornella had brought in.  If he had not simply known that she was a caster, Minghis might have thought she was a warlord.  Her golden headdress resembled a helmet and she wore a stylized golden breastplate with sharp epaulets over her sequined black tunic and black pants.  Truly a fitting caster for a barbarian side.

 

“Introduce yourself to the court!” Minghis ordered.

 

“I am Kala Farsighted!” she announced.  “Lookamancer to the glorious court of Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn, Master of Horses and Lord of the Skies!”

 

Kala had popped in Khanate last turn and Minghis had immediately dispatched Ornella to bring her to the capital.  According to Cashcarry, even a novice lookamancer should be able to examine nearly every hex in Mangolia’s territory, given enough time.  Not only that but, once the tribe had left Mangolia behind, she would be able to guide them through new lands.

 

“Tonight we will have a feast in your honor, Lady Kala,” Minghis announced to the assembled court.  “But now, I need you and Lord Klytus to join me in the war room.”

 

“Yes, Sire,” Kala replied.

 

* * *

 

Fourteen turns later Minghis stood in the war room with Cashcarry and Klytus.  Most of the map on the table had been filled in.  Mangolia now boasted a total of nine farms and one mine, the latter found in the hills around Sky City.  There was a large blank spot in the region bounded by Arboria, Sky City and Mango City, but Kala was now in Arboria working to fill in most of that.  Klytus was in contact with her via thinkamancy and was directing Gomar on the creation of new tiles.

 

After that, the only remaining large unknown area would lie northwest of Mango City and Ornate.  Minghis felt satisfied.  Not only had he managed to fill in most of the map table, but his cities now boasted forces large enough for their defense.  Markers on the map indicated stacks of knights and warlords en route from Mango City to the other four cities in his realm as reinforcements.

 

Soon they would be able to leave this place.  Another thirty turns, perhaps…

 

“Sire!” Klytus exclaimed, interrupting Minghis’ thoughts.

 

“What is it?”

 

“My lord, Lady Kala has sighted a sizeable scouting party northeast of Arboria,” Klytus said.  “They are only ten hexes from the city!”

 

“Stop mapping!” Minghis ordered.  “Have her look further.  Is it just the scouting party or is there an army behind them?”

 

While he waited for Kala and Klytus to get him the information he had requested, he mentally ordered Ornella and Khan to join him in the war room.

 

“There is an army six hexes northeast of the scouts,” Klytus exclaimed.  “A hundred and twenty stabbers, eighty archers, forty knights, a dozen siege towers and…”

 

“What!”

 

“And a stack of eight dwagons, Sire,” Klytus replied quietly.

 

“All through forest?” Minghis asked.  Ornella and Khan burst into the war room in response to his command.

 

“Father, what is it?” Ornella asked.

 

“Hold,” Minghis commanded.  “Klytus?”

 

“Yes, my lord,” Klytus said.  “All of the hexes between Arboria and the invaders are forest hexes without roads.”

 

Minghis nodded as he heard Ornella’s gasp of surprise behind him.  It would be four turns before those siege towers could reach Arboria.  If the enemy split their column, it would still take the stabbers and archers three turns to reach them.  Depending on their mounts it would take the knights either two or three turns.  Plenty of time.

 

Minghis looked at the map and silently ordered the two stacks of knights in Sky City to depart immediately for Arboria.  The two stacks on their way to Sky City from Khanate would arrive next turn to replace them.  Arboria was still popping stabbers.  With a thought, Minghis changed that to archers.

 

“Khan, prepare all of our knights here in the city and ride for Arboria at once,” Minghis ordered.

 

“Yes, my lord!”

 

“Ornella, for this battle you are hereby appointed as Chief Warlord,” Minghis told her.  “I will ride behind you.  Have one of your warlords take Klytus.  I want every hawk we have in Arboria tonight.”

 

“At once, father!”

 

Minghis looked back down at the table as everyone hurried off to implement his orders.  Someone had finally noticed them.

 

Part 4 of 13 in The Horde