The Horde, Part Six
Part Six: The Truce
by Thomas K. Martin
The great hall of the newly upgraded level four city of Arboria was filled with the surviving warlords and knights of Mangolia’s first great victory. At Minghis’ command, the city had popped a new twoll the morning after the battle to serve in the kitchens. He had prepared the feast which the victors were now enjoying. A few stabbers had been drafted as serving staff for the occasion.
“We rode at them through a rain of arrows,” Khan was saying. “Seven of my knights fell before we even reached the stabbers, but we rode on. The stabbers were spread too thin, attempting to screen the archers in the middle of the road. We lost only four more knights before we punched through and into the archers.”
“It was glorious!” Khan continued after pausing to take a large draught of wine. “The stabbers and archers of the enemy were trampled beneath our hooves and our blades drank deep of Dixieland blood!”
There were cheers and shouts from among the assembled knights and warlords.
“That is all well and good, great Khan,” Kherlen said, rising to his feet. “But while you were facing foot soldiers, the knights under my command were facing real soldiers – the knights of Dixieland. Our ponies were dwarfed by their great horses, and their numbers were even with our own. But my knights fought them like demons from Hellabad itself and when the battle was over, we stood over their lifeless corpses.”
“And yet not one of you faced the dwagons,” Ornella pointed out. “You speak of their great horses, Kherlen. A dwagon is the size of a dozen horses, with fangs and claws and breathing fire, or shockmancy, or gas. Were it not for my hawkmen, all of you would have been roasted on the ground before you could even close with the enemy.”
For a moment, Khan seemed at a loss for words. Then he smiled at Ornella.
“That is true,” he said. “But, were it not for our knights, the archers would have been dropping your hawks from the sky like veepquail!”
“My hawks are not veepquail!” Ornella shouted, rising to her feet.
“Forgive me sister,” Khan replied. “Perhaps I should have said pheasants!”
“How dare you?” Ornella said, leaping onto the table to face Khan. “One of my hawks could carry two of your knights off like antelope! Only your knights can’t run as fast!”
“Enough!” shouted Minghis, rising to his feet. “Your bickering dishonors those who fell in this battle. The Mango tribe lost many fine warriors last turn, all of whom croaked that the tribe might go on.”
“Yes, father,” Ornella and Khan both replied.
“An army, or a tribe, is made up of all of its parts,” he continued. “Take away any part and the rest shall fall. Yes, Ornella, your hawkmen shielded us from the dwagons, but do not forget that the casters had a hand in that as well.”
Ornella glanced over to Cashcarry, who seemed embarrassed by the attention, but Klytus silently raised his goblet in acknowledgement and Kala positively beamed under the praise. Those two were getting too close for Ornella’s comfort.
“And Khan, yes, your knights kept the arrows from firing on the hawkmen, but if our stabbers had not arrived to support you, your losses would have been much higher,” Minghis added. “Kherlen, the same is true for you.”
“Yes, great Minghis,” Kherlen acknowledged.
“We won a great victory here last turn,” Minghis went on. “But it was against only a small portion of our enemy’s forces. And it came at a great cost. But our tribe mates paid that cost so the tribe could go on. And they will be waiting for us in the City of Heroes!”
The cheer that followed was louder than all of the bragging that had preceded it.
* * *
Gordon stood uncomfortably before the throne of King Condon. Two turns after leaving Mangolia’s city of Arboria, a warlord on a yellow dwagon had met his force on the road. That warlord had taken command of Gordon’s surviving troops and Gordon had been ordered to take the dwagon immediately to the capital.
His reception in River City had been cool, to say the least. Dateamancer Dale Ardent had been waiting for him on the roof of the tower. As he had feared, she had immediately sensed his…new connection to the barbarian warlord, Ornella.
“His majesty awaits you in the throne room,” Dale had said to him, flatly, before simply turning and walking away. That situation would have to wait, obviously. Right now he stood before a very unhappy king. To Condon’s left stood Dale, her long raven hair in stark contrast to the pale skin of her face and shoulders. Her rich blue eyes refused to meet his. On Condon’s right stood Chief Predictamancer Han Barkoff. His dark brown hair and beard seemed even wilder than usual.
“We had no reports of warhawks, your majesty,” Gordon said. “Neither from our scouts nor from our esteemed predictamancer.”
“That has no bearing on the fact that you marched our force into a city with a working gate!” The king shouted the last two words.
“Yes, your majesty. I was overconfident. I saw only a level one Chief Warlord before the attack. I was unaware there was a leadership artifact in the city. Nor was I aware there were no less than three casters in the city.”
“And your overconfidence has cost us eight dwagons!” Condon added. “Even now, Earl Land’s troops are massing at the border. In nine turns they will cross that border to march on Azalea once again.”
“They saw us coming, your majesty,” Gordon objected. “That is the only explanation for the discrepancies between what our scouts reported and what we encountered. If Barkoff hadn’t sent us off on a veiled snipe hunt, this would never have happened!”
“Our doom shall come from the west,” Barkoff assured him.
“Yes,” Gordon snapped. “And ‘the dwagon has two heads’. I heard both of your so-called prophecies, but this Overlord Minghis is not allied with Earl Land.”
“The two visions may be…unrelated,” Barkoff conceded.
“Our doom is waiting on the northern border,” Gordon said. “You need to check the compass in your vision again.”
“Silence!” King Condon interrupted. “This…barbarian will not be our concern for at least thirty-seven more turns. Count Gordon, much as it pains me I am forced to admit that this defeat is not entirely your fault. You are hereby appointed Chief Warlord - again. Let us retire to the war room and determine how to deal with the enemy at our gates.”
* * *
It was much later that evening when they retired from the war room. King Condon’s mood had much improved by the end of their planning session. True, Azalea would have only seven dwagons by the time Earl Land could reach the city, but a large relief force would leave River City at start of turn in the morning.
With them would be four stacks of the dollamancer’s mobile ballistae. Combined with all of the ballistae Condon had popped with Azalea’s upgrade, they had a good chance of stopping Earl Land’s advance at that point. If they lost Azalea, this relief force was powerful enough to retake the city. With the reported size of the force massing at the border, it was more likely than not that Azalea would fall. The only thing they had not seen was the size of their dwagon wing, but they knew it would be larger than their own.
Gordon would leave on the yellow and take two turns to fly directly to Azalea with Dateamancer Ardent as his passenger. She would spell up the tower until Earl Land’s forces arrived and would manage its defense during the battle.
“Dale!” he called to her retreating back. She stopped, but did not turn around immediately. He could almost see her steel herself before turning to face him.
“It is late, Count Gordon,” she said as he walked up to her. Gordon winced at the formality of her address.
“Dale, please,” he said. “I was a prisoner – in chains. She forced herself on me.”
Dale Ardent looked down as he spoke, refusing to meet his eyes.
“She means nothing to me,” he assured her. Her eyes flashed in anger and she finally raised her gaze to his.
“That is a lie!” she said.
“No,” he objected. “She means nothing to me compared to what you mean to me.”
She again looked away from him.
“That much is true,” she conceded. The sadness in her voice tore at his heart.
“I swear to you, I would never willingly touch her,” he said.
“And yet, deep down, you hope for unwillingly,” she said softly.
Dale finally, truly looked up at him. He could almost feel her dateamancy exploring his new bond with this savage woman.
“Yes,” she said. “And that is the problem.”
Then she turned to walk away, leaving him alone in the dimly lit corridor.
* * *
Minghis idly ran his hand through the soft fleece of the animal which had just popped in his stables. The wool of the giant battering ram was soft and yet coarse at the same time. It was an impressive beast, higher at the shoulder than Minghis by a full hand. Loathe as he was to interrupt the production of new hawks, the farms were simply not providing enough wool for the twolls, and Minghis needed the twolls working. There were yurts and bedrolls and blankets to be made for hundreds of troops.
“Will this work for you?” Minghis asked Gomar.
“Yes, lawd,” Gomar said. “Will be good for yurts, but not for bedrolls. Will use the farm wool for bedrolls.”
The twolls would be able to shear the wool from the rams after start of turn every day. Each day, the rams would be healed and given their full coat. That was the advantage of shearing units which required upkeep. Besides, the rams would be needed once they were on the march. After all, one could not count on an enemy to merely open his gates.
“How is the mobile forge coming along?” Minghis asked the twoll. Gomar sighed in response.
“Is difficult, lawd,” he said. “But it will be ready.”
“I’m counting on you, Gomar,” Minghis told him, reaching up to clap the twoll on the shoulder. “I know that I can.”
* * *
“Breathe!” Gordon commanded. The red upon which he was mounted and the purple beside him unleashed their breath weapons at the dwagons in front of him. They weren’t close enough for the two greens to be of any use yet, and certainly not close enough for the two pinks. The lone yellow would be useless until they engaged in close combat.
The truce with Earl Land had ended five turns ago. That was not who Gordon faced now. These forces belonged to the side of Earl Light, an allied side that Earl Land had split off just before the end of the truce with King Black’s son, Prince Gray Earl, now King Gray.
“The dwagon has two heads, my butt,” Gordon muttered. Chief Predictamancer Barkoff’s crazy predictions had gotten them into this mess. If he hadn’t sent them off on that fool’s errand in Mangolia, Gordon would have eight more dwagons in this battle.
Fortunately, King Gray had lost four of his sixteen dwagons before Gordon had engaged. When King Condon had upgraded Azalea, he had popped a truly ludicrous number of ballistae on the walls. The tower, under Dateamancer Ardent’s control, had taken out one more that had been wounded. Still, eleven dwagons against seven was not a good match. Especially when three of his were practically useless.
Gordon banked his red to dodge a crackling bolt of shockmancy from one of the enemy blues.
“Break!” Gordon ordered and the seven dwagons under his command split away from the enemy. No sooner had they cleared away, then ballistae volleys from both the outer walls and the tower sought out the enemy. Gordon spared a glance for the northwest gate. The battlecrap from Earl Light’s three yellows had almost eaten through the gate. It would take a few minutes for King Gray’s troops to cover the ground enough to walk over the remaining acid. After that the enemy would swarm through the gates.
The sound and concussion of a nearby explosion wrenched Gordon’s attention from the gate. The tower had just fired its second bolt. The blast had found a wounded enemy green and ignited the gas leaking from its belly. More importantly the ensuing blast had apparently croaked one of the warlords on the blue dwagon next to it. Gordon watched the numbers change as the surviving warlord on the red shuffled his stack. The two enemy yellows flew out of the city over the north wall, each dropping a load of battlecrap on the wall as they flew over it.
“Well done, Dale!” he said. Now it was only eight against seven. They might win this battle after all. As he banked around to reengage the enemy dwagons, Gordon glanced down to where Earl Light’s troops were now busily throwing sawdust over the empty hole where the northwest gate had once stood.
“Then again,” he said. “Probably not.”
* * *
The enemy turn had forcibly ended at noon. Earl Light’s commander had been able to pull his four surviving dwagons out of the city before end of turn, but many of his stabbers had been left inside the walls. Gordon had roosted his own three surviving, but freshly healed, dwagons atop the tower and led a sortie of freshly healed knights from the courtyard to sweep the outer city clean of the enemy.
The enemy still surrounded the city in far superior numbers and young Prince Murphy’s relief force was still two turns away. The enemy had pulled far enough away from the walls to avoid archery fire while still holding the hexes around the city. The dwagons had flown off to the north. They could be over twenty hexes away somewhere and still be close enough to hit the city again next turn. The four which had fled the city and the two yellows would outnumber Gordon’s dwagons by two to one. There was no way he would be able to find them and engage them while they were still wounded. Azalea would fall tomorrow.
Gordon’s hat rumbled and he removed it from his head, pulling out the wand from his belt.
“Shackleton”, Gordon intoned, tapping the hat with the wand. A note appeared within, sealed with the double bugles of Dixieland. Gordon broke the seal and read his orders.
* * *
“We cannot simply abandon them to die!” Dateamancer Ardent objected.
“This city will fall tomorrow, whether we remain or not,” Gordon replied. “My orders are to get you and the dwagons out of here before end of turn. We are going to join the relief force. These are the king’s orders.”
“Let me spell up the tower before we leave,” Dale pleaded. “It may help.”
“Make it fast,” Gordon agreed. As Dale ran into the tower, Gordon launched his red from the tower to make a circuit of the courtyard. He ordered the knights mounted on the other two dwagons, a purple and a pink, to remain at the tower.
Below him, Dixieland’s troops were mounting as many ballistae from the outer walls as they could onto the courtyard walls. At his orders, all of the city’s forces had been brought into the courtyard. Gordon learned his lessons well, especially the expensive ones, and this one had been taught to him by a barbarian Overlord at great expense. When facing a vastly superior force on their turn, sacrifice the outer city to bring the enemy into your own hex.
When Gordon returned to the tower, Dateamancer Ardent was already waiting for him. He brought the red gently down onto the top of the tower and she climbed up behind him. Two knights rode on each remaining dwagon. Gordon only wished he could get more people out of here, but that was not possible.
“We will exit the city over the forest hex to the southwest,” Gordon informed them. “Climb as high as you can. I don’t think they have any forest capable units which can fire on us, but we’re not taking any chances.”
“Yes, lord,” the knights replied. At Gordon’s order all three dwagons launched from the top of the tower and began beating their wings hard to gain altitude over the city.
“Benjamin,” Dale said softly behind him. His heart skipped a beat to hear her address him so informally once again.
“I am…sorry I have been so angry with you,” she continued.
“I am sorry that I have given you cause,” he replied.
As they flew over the southwest wall of the city, a small flight of arrows rose from the trees. Apparently Earl Land did have a few forest capable units, after all. Fortunately, the arrows fell far short of the fleeing dwagons.
“Hang on,” he told Dale. Gordon nosed the red forward into a dive while ordering the other two dwagons to fly on. That had been a very small flight of arrows. As the dwagon lost altitude, another flight of arrows rose from the forest. A few found their mark, but the damage to the great beast was negligible.
“Breathe!” he ordered as soon as they were within range of the tree tops. The red let loose a great blast of fire, igniting the tops of several trees.
“Climb!” he ordered and the dwagon began beating its wings to gain altitude. No more arrows rose from the forest. Gordon and Dale looked back as the dwagon rose to join the others. The flames were spreading quickly across the tops of the trees. Soon, it would become an inferno and Earl Land’s troops would not be able to leave the hex off turn. That should take a little pressure off the defenders of Azalea.
“How awful!” Dale said.
“Don’t watch,” Gordon told her. It was not an order, but she obeyed anyway. She was right, being trapped in an inferno hex was horrible, but this was war.
* * *
They reached the head of the relief force well before nightfall. Gordon brought his pitiful flight of dwagons down to land at the head of the column. As Gordon dismounted, Prince Murphy rode up to him on a beautifully armored quarter horse. At six turns old, the prince had precious little training or experience, but he did cut an inspiring figure on horseback.
“Your highness!” Gordon greeted, snapping to attention and throwing the prince a sharp salute.
“Count Gordon,” the prince replied, returning his salute. “My father’s orders are for you to take command of this force.”
“Of course, your highness,” Gordon agreed. “I have brought four more knights. We will need a warlord to take command of the dwagons.”
“What news from Azalea?”
“The city will almost certainly fall tomorrow,” Gordon explained. “But it will not fall easily. They have a very good chance of costing King Gray a few more dwagons tomorrow. I set an inferno in the hex to the southwest of the city as I departed. Hopefully it will not spread too far. We will have our dwagons fly a few hexes north of us in the morning to check on it.”
“How unfortunate that we will lose all of those men,” Prince Murphy said. “But there was no hope for it with the size of Earl Light’s forces. In two turns hence, we shall avenge them.”
“Yes, your highness.”
* * *
Minghis carefully inspected the huge piece of leather armor lying on the floor. He could have laid down on it with room to spare. Straps on the sides would fix it to the saddle before and behind of a hawk’s wings.
“You want to make these for all of the warhawks?” Minghis said.
“We don’t have enough leather for that,” Ornella told him. “But we do have plenty of wool, thanks to the rams.”
Ornella beckoned to Gomar and the twoll laid out a nearly identical piece of very heavy cloth. It was dyed a dark brown to nearly match the color of the leather armor. Minghis knelt down on one knee and felt the cloth in his hand. He did not doubt that this could stop a few arrows.
“From the ground, the enemy won’t be able to tell the difference,” Ornella said. “Father, the warhawks are the single most important unit of your army. Once we leave here, we won’t be able to pop any more. We have to protect them. I propose we make enough leather breastplates for the warlords, and armor the remaining hawks with these.”
“Very well,” Minghis agreed. “I will assign four twolls to make these for you. Gomar, I want you to continue working on the forge.”
“Yes, lawd,” Gomar agreed.
* * *
Fortunately the inferno had only spread to two other hexes before burning itself out. Viscount Burr had been able to see the resulting ash hexes from the air before the column camped for the night. What was less fortunate was that Burr had counted at least ten dwagons over the city. Earl Light must have sent reinforcements last turn.
Gordon was certain those dwagons had to represent every dwagon that Earl Land and Earl Light had between them. If they could eliminate those dwagons, Dixieland could march on Whitecliff, Earl Light’s only city, with conventional forces. Taking Whitecliff, and ending the side of Earl Light, would put them in a much better position against Earl Land.
“Earl Light knows we are here,” Prince Murphy said. “They could send their dwagons to attack us when their turn starts at dawn. They have the move.”
“Would that the Titans would be so kind to us,” Gordon replied.
“I would much rather face those monsters alone in the field without the support of the city or Earl Light’s troops,” Gordon explained. “At dawn we will ready the ballistae and hope that King Gray is that stupid.”
“Is that why you ordered us to camp here in this clearing?” Prince Murphy asked. “Instead of pressing one hex closer to Azalea?”
“Yes,” Gordon replied. “Always pick your battlefield when you can, your highness.”
* * *
King Gray had proven not to be as stupid as Gordon had hoped. Dawn had broken and no attack came. After a few hours it was obvious that no attack would come. Shortly before noon Dixieland’s turn had begun without incident.
They had marched up to the city through the two newly created ash hexes left behind by the inferno. Gordon had noticed a few green shoots already poking up through the ash. In a dozen turns or so these would again be lush forest hexes.
Earl Land was off turn, so the archers on the walls were unable to attack across the hex boundary until Gordon attacked the city. Gordon’s forces were under no such restriction, but the archers were smart enough not to make targets of themselves.
“Bring up the siege towers!” Gordon ordered. “Ready the battering ram!”
Gordon watched anxiously as four siege towers were pushed toward the wall by four stacks of stabbers each. The instant those towers touched the wall the battle would begin. It was almost certain that the tower was depleted, but it was not impossible that they could have brought a caster in to spell it up.
The towers reached the wall without any discharge from the tower. At Gordon’s unspoken order the archers inside the tower opened their arrow slits and began firing on the archers below them who were now able to return fire in kind.
“Chief, the dwagons!” Prince Murphy said. Sure enough, all of the dwagons in the city were now headed toward the siege towers. Gordon counted eleven of the beasts. Two reds, two blues, three purples, two greens, a yellow and a pink.
“Ready the ballistae!” Gordon ordered. “Target the reds then the purples! Get that ram up to the gate.”
Gordon watched as the dwagons approached the towers. Soon, they would be in range of the towers, but long before that they would be within reach of his ballistae.
“Fire!” Gordon ordered. Thirty two ballistae let fly, all aimed at the two reds. Most went wide of their targets, a few found new targets among the other dwagons, but enough found their mark. Both reds fell from the sky before they could breathe.
“Reload!” Gordon ordered. They no longer had to fear fire engulfing all of the towers, but those purples could still reduce the siege towers to kindling. If that happened, there were four more towers in reserve but Gordon would lose a lot of men.
Three loud thunderclaps announced the sonic attacks of the purples. The top floors of three of the towers were crushed flat, and each of the three towers buckled a little, but they held. The archers on the next floor down continued to fire against their counterparts on the wall. When those purples came back, those three towers would not stand, unless they could drop them as well.
The engineers finished reloading the ballistae, but the dwagons did not return. Apparently King Gray’s commander did not feel like exposing his dwagons to enemy siege engines which had greater range than they did. It seemed that he learned his lessons as well.
With Earl Light’s dwagons removed from the battle, breaching the outer wall became a contest of men against men and Dixieland had a lot more men. At one point, a group of stabbers brought a cauldron of burning oil up to dump on the ram attacking the gate, but a single blast by Gordon’s lone purple brought that effort to a quick, fiery end, covering the attackers in their own burning oil.
Shortly after that, the gate gave way, the thick wood splintering and cracking. The stabbers manning the ram pushed the gate open to reveal a line of enemy pikers. Gordon had expected this. The knights which had been prepared to charge through the gate instead wheeled and parted exposing the archers behind them. The archers opened fire on the pikers as the knights turned back to charge into the broken formation. Only a few knights were brought down by the remnants of the piker force. Over the city, the dwagons turned back to engage this new threat.
Gordon’s own pikers marched into the city as the stabbers and engineers pulled the loaded ballistae into the city behind them, followed by the archers.
“Target the blues!” Gordon ordered as the mobile ballistae set up inside the gate. “Archers, target the yellow!”
In the distance Gordon could hear the rumble of hooves. At least four stacks of knights, by the sound of it.
“Pikers, stand fast!” he ordered as he continued to watch the dwagons. “Prepare to receive charge!”
“Ballistae, fire!” he ordered. The results of the barrage were less favorable this time. Only a single blue was felled by the fire. The other was sorely wounded but still lived.
“Archers, target the blue!” Gordon commanded. “Fire!”
The archers released at the same time that the blue and the three purples attacked. A bolt of shockmancy landed amidst the ballistae at the same time that the ground beneath the siege engines erupted from the sonic attack of the purples. The volley of arrows flew up among the dwagons, mainly focused on the blue. Gordon watched as the great beasts eyes became exes and it fell from the sky.
“Get out from under it!” he commanded, but there was no time. The body of the blue landed among the archers. Gordon lost a full stack of archers and half of another.
“Volley!” Gordon commanded and the archers loosed another volley at the departing dwagons. Most of the arrows fell short. At that moment, five stacks of knights slammed into ten stacks of pikers. The line held at the cost of almost three stacks of pikers, but cost Earl Light an equal number of knights.
“Knights, charge!” Gordon commanded. “Get those ballistae upright and loaded! Now! Dwagons, forward! Everyone else, into the city!”
* * *
“How much do the turnamancers want for this item you wish to purchase?” Minghis asked.
“Five thousand shmuckers, Sire,” Kala told him. Ever since the truce she had been studying with the turnamancers and casting to boost the production rate of the capital. But turnamancy was about much more than production. Now she wished to purchase an item that would help with the interrogation of prisoners.
“What do you think, my son?” Minghis asked.
“It sounds like a fair price,” Cashcarry assured him. “If you like, I could accompany her and inspect the item, myself.”
“Do so,” Minghis commanded. “As Chief Caster, I leave the decision for this purchase in your hands.”
“As you wish, father.”
* * *
Gordon looked out over Azalea from the main tower. It had been a costly battle, but more so for Earl Light. The enemy had lost all of the dwagons and their Chief Warlord, plus the great majority of their troops. Azalea’s dungeons held less than twenty enemy soldiers. Only two of Dixieland’s dwagons remained – the red and the purple.
“Benjamin?” Dale said, coming up behind him. Gordon let his breath out in a sigh of relief. When her pink had gone down, he had feared the worst. He, himself had led the charge of knights to her rescue.
“How’s the arm?” he asked. Her left arm had been badly broken in the fall. Thank the Titans she had not croaked.
“Not good,” she said. “But it will heal with the dawn.”
“Tomorrow you will return to Gate City by dwagon,” Gordon told her. “From there you will return to the capital with an escort of knights.”
That question had a very long answer. His majesty had ordered him to remain in Azalea. Reinforcements were already in route from across the kingdom. Once they arrived, he was to begin the march to Whitecliff with Prince Murphy. There was talk of having the prince split off a new side at the enemy capital. It was more likely, however, that Gordon would be ordered to take the capital site and found a vassal side to Dixieland. If that were the case it was likely that he would never see Dale again.
“I remain here,” was all he said.
“Well, then you should come to bed,” she said. He turned to look at her.
“What about your arm?” he asked.
“Make me forget it.”
* * *
Minghis was waiting in the portal room when Kala and Cashcarry returned. Kala seemed excited and was holding a whip in her hands. Minghis held his hand out to her and she reluctantly handed the item over to him.
It seemed like a particularly nasty device. It had a polished black wooden handle topped with a gold band. The band held four braided leather strands which ended in knots.
“So this is what I’ve paid five thousand shmuckers for?” he asked, handing the item back to Kala.
“Four thousand, five hundred,” Cashcarry corrected.
“Oh?” Minghis had felt the deduction from the treasury but had not paid enough attention to it to notice exactly how much had been deducted.
“Your son is an excellent negotiator, Sire,” Kala told him. “I believed that I had already negotiated the turnamancers as low as possible, but he was able to talk them down another five hundred shmuckers.”
“Well done, son.”
* * *
Gordon rode through the northwest gate of Azalea with a truly impressive force under his command. Ten stacks each of knights and pikers, fifteen stacks of stabbers and another twenty stacks of archers. In addition they had two stacks of the mobile ballistae, eight siege towers and two battering rams. The siege equipment would slow them drastically once they entered the mountain hexes around Whitecliff, but without it, they would have no chance of defeating the city.
It was going to take them seventeen turns to reach Whitecliff. By then, Earl Land and Earl Light might have been able to pop two full stacks of dwagons, but if they did, they would be able to pop little else. Once Gordon’s force reached Whitecliff, he would be joined by seven dwagons of their own from Azalea. That, the engines and the archers should be enough to counter any dwagons their enemies could field.
They had been unable to get any predictions about the upcoming battle from Barkoff. He claimed that he could see nothing of a battle against Earl Land or Earl Light and kept insisting that “our doom shall come from the west.” King Condon was nearing his wits end with the Chief Caster.
Their orders had been finalized in the few days he had been waiting for his forces to arrive. Once Whitecliff had fallen, Prince Murphy would claim the city and start a new side at which point Gordon and the soldiers under him would turn to the new side. After that Dateamancer Ardent would use her skills as a novice Signamancer to draft a contract of alliance transferring a hundred thousand Shmuckers and the city of Azalea, with all units contained therein, to King Murphy’s new side.
From there, Murphy and Gordon would press on against Earl Land, leaving Dixieland free to deal with the threat posed by the Mangolians. The best part of the plan, from Gordon’s point of view, was that after the new side was founded, Dale had been tasked with finding another dateamancer in the Magic Kingdom who would be willing to join Dixieland. Once she had trained the new dateamancer in signamancy, Dale would travel to Whitecliff where she too would join their new side.
Things were finally looking up.
* * *
Ornella watched as the line of oxcarts left the city. The oxcarts were strange units – giant oxen even larger than the rams, with a large, cart-like growth on their back that also had a seat for a rider. Ornella glanced back at Arboria. Everything of use had been looted from the city – banners, powerballs, the larder, every scrap of metal, even the mattresses from the barracks.
Arboria and Sky City were the first cities to be abandoned. In two turns, Khanate and Ornate would suffer the same fate. Two turns after that…she would be a barbarian. She silently ordered her wing of hawks into the air once the last oxcart had left the city. They followed her out of the city to the southeast. She did not look back as Minghis razed the city – her city – behind her.
* * *
Cashcarry stood just outside the empty capital on the northeast road with his father’s stack. With him were Klytus and Kala and five knights. This was to be the core of the tribe.
“Are you ready, my son?” Minghis asked him. Part of him wanted to scream that no, he was not ready, that this was madness.
“Yes, father,” was all he said.
Minghis nodded to him and turned to face Mango City – their last city. Minghis raised his arms as Cashcarry stepped up behind him and placed his hands on his father’s shoulders. There was a great rending and crashing as the great capital of Mangolia collapsed into ruin.
An immense flood of shmuckers began to flow into Minghis’ empty purse – far more than any purse could contain. Cashcarry seized hold of that flood and diverted it into the spell he was casting. A rain of gems began to fall into the oxcart beside him.
The flood threatened to overwhelm him, spilling into Minghis’ purse. It would not be slowed. The city had been razed and the payment was due. Cashcarry poured more juice into the spell he was maintaining, converting the tide of shmuckers into gems at an ever faster rate.
And then it was over. The torrent stopped and Cashcarry released his spell. It was a good thing too – he was spent with only a few drops of juice left to him. He fell to his knees, gasping for breath. He had done it – of the more than eighty thousand shmuckers that had come from razing the city, seventy two thousand had been converted into five hundred shmucker gems. A little over a thousand had slipped his grasp and flowed into Minghis’ purse, but he knew that next time he would be able to catch it all.
And then he felt himself level. The fatigue which had washed over him faded as his juice increased with the increase in level.
“Are you all right, son?” Minghis asked, concern plain in his voice. Cashcarry allowed his father to help him to his feet.
“Amazing,” he heard Klytus mutter under his breath. The thinkamancer had climbed up onto the oxcart and was staring into it.
“I am all right, father,” Cashcarry said.
“I got it all.”
“Can you ride?”
“Then let us take our place in the column,” Minghis said, climbing onto his own quarter horse. Cashcarry mounted his nickel horse and they rode to the center of the column. Over twelve-hundred men made up the tribe. As they rode, Cashcarry noticed something else – he was free. Minghis was no longer his overlord – he had no overlord. The great Minghis was nothing more than his father. True, Minghis was the warlord in command of his stack, but Cashcarry could break stack if he wanted to and ride off in any direction he chose.
He stole a sidelong glance at Klytus. The thinkamancer seemed lost in thought as they rode toward the center of the hex. After a moment, Klytus turned and met his gaze, nodding once in acknowledgement. If any of the casters broke free of the tribe it would be Klytus – possibly followed by Kala. He looked away from Klytus’ inscrutable gaze.
“Father,” Cashcarry said, catching the attention of the great Minghis.
“Yes, my son?”
“The casters and I are commander units as well,” he said. “You should have us formally ally with you along with the warlords.”
“Yes,” Minghis agreed. “Yes, you are right.”
They reached the center of the hex where all of the warlords had gathered to pledge their allegiance to the great Minghis. The twolls had set the Wolf Throne up on a wooden platform. Cashcarry looked around at the assembled warlords. There were one hundred and twenty eight of them, most level one, all with purses filled from the treasury before the city was razed.
“Cashcarry Mango, step forward!” Minghis called from the throne. The former overlord was standing before the throne. Cashcarry stepped up onto the dais in front of his father and knelt without being commanded to do so.
“Do you swear to join my alliance and obey my commands as your lord?” Minghis asked.
“I so swear, great Minghis, Light of the Dawn, Master of Horses and Lord of the Skies,” Cashcarry replied. To Cashcarry’s surprise, Minghis took a golden gorget identical to the one he himself now wore from a chest next to the throne and fastened it over Cashcarry’s shoulders. Cashcarry had wondered who the fourth one was for. Now he knew. The gorget was directly convertible to five hundred shmuckers.
“Rise and step to the side,” Minghis commanded. Now that he was formally allied with Minghis, he felt the command compel him to obey. He could not disobey without breaking alliance.
“Ornella Mango, step forward,” Minghis commanded.
Cashcarry watched as first his sister, and then his brother also swore allegiance to the great Minghis. They also received golden gorgets. Then Minghis called Gomar the twoll forward. Neither Minghis nor Cashcarry had known if it was possible to promote a twoll to warlord before they had attempted it. It had turned out to be possible, but quite expensive. Once the four of them had sworn to the alliance, Minghis turned to the assembled warlords.
“These are my first warlords,” he announced to all of the assembled. “They have proven their bravery and their loyalty to me on the field of battle. The gold they wear signifies this. Prove yourselves to me, and you too shall receive this badge of honor.”
A great cheer rose from the assembled barbarian warlords and their troops at the words of the great Minghis. Once it had died away, Minghis dismissed the four of them from the dais and took his seat on the Wolf Throne.
“Klytus Soulreader, step forward,” Minghis commanded.
It took most of the morning to form the alliance. Minghis called each warlord forward and took their oath. He never had to be prompted, did not read from a list. He knew the name of every warlord in the tribe. Once the last warlord had sworn to him, the twolls packed away the throne and the dais in an oxcart.
“All of the troops are in position, Sire,” Klytus told Minghis some time after.
“Command the tribe to march!” Minghis ordered. Klytus closed his eyes, reached up and touched his right temple. Cashcarry looked to the front of the column where ninety one hawks took to the air with a single cry.
Then, as if it were one great beast, the tribe began to march.
* * *
“Dixieland is a wonderful side,” Marquise Dale was telling Madame Xaviera. “King Condon tries to maintain peace as often as possible with his neighbors, which is why he prizes dateamancy and signamancy. So, basically at first, you will be getting paid to learn signamancy. If you show an aptitude for it, I can assure you he will extend an offer to join the side.”
“If Dixieland is so wonderful, why are you leaving?” Xaviera asked.
“I can’t go into too great detail on that,” Dale replied. “A warlord of ours of which I am very fond has been ordered to turn to one of our allies.”
“Ah, so it is about a man,” Xaviera replied, smiling. “And your king is willing to allow this?”
“Yes, King Condon is a wonderful ruler,” Dale said, returning Xaviera’s smile. “He…”
Dale stopped talking as she felt one of the contracts held in her mind simply…evaporate. One moment, the truce with Mangolia was in full effect and inviolate and the next it was simply…gone. It had not been violated, it had simply ended – two turns early. She had to return and tell the king at once!
“Is something wrong?” Xaviera asked.
Dale looked at the dateamancer she had been courting. Her duty demanded that she secure this caster for her side, but it also demanded that she not reveal too much to an unallied unit.
“One of our truces just ended two turns early,” she said. “I have to report this to my king.”
“They broke the truce?” Xaviera asked.
“No, I…I think the other side has ended,” Dale said. “Please excuse me.”
Dale turned and began to walk calmly toward Portal Park. As soon as she was out of sight of Madame Xaviera, she began to run.
* * *
Baron Henry Harrison rode through the forest with two stacks of mounted scouts. For the last twenty four turns they had patrolled this five hex section of border, thirteen hexes from the enemy city of Arboria. So far it had proven to be one of the most boring assignments he had ever received. In two more turns the truce would end and he would receive new orders.
Then he felt the king’s silent orders.
Scout the city of Arboria and report back. Avoid all engagements.
It was now noon and they had just completed the first half of their patrol. That left them with twelve move. He should be able to make eight hexes through the forest toward Arboria. Early next turn, they would have eyes on Arboria.
* * *
Ornella flew over the camp. The tribe filled most of the hex. Powerballs littered the ground like stars in the sky. The only fires allowed were those tended by the twolls cooking the evening meal in carefully built firepits.
Warcry settled onto the ground and Ornella hopped off of his back. The tribe moved at the speed of a lame ox. At this rate it was going to take them over three turns to reach the ruins of Arboria. If she had travelled directly there with Warcry, she could have slept in her own bed tonight, had it still been there. It would be even worse once they left the road and headed into the forest.
She felt Klytus summon her to her father’s grand yurt for dinner just as a knight arrived to tend to Warcry. She stroked and then hugged the hawk’s neck before heading across the camp to join her father for dinner.
* * *
The warlord’s dined on fresh antelope and veepquail captured during the day’s march. The remainder was being smoked by the twolls to be distributed as provisions for the tribe. Provisions were important – without food the upkeep for the tribe was over ten thousand shmuckers per turn. Provisions would drop that by half.
Minghis downed the last of a goblet of wine and sat back in the throne. This was going to work. He had freed his people and now they were on the march, together. As a tribe – as equals, and they would crush their enemies underfoot.
“Warlords!” Minghis announced, rising from the throne. “Our first turn as a free tribe has been a success. In nine more turns we should reach the first of Dixieland’s cities and raze it to the ground.”
There was a loud cheer which briefly drew the attention of nearby units.
“Now,” Minghis said with a smile once the warlords had fallen silent, “I am tired. Get out of my yurt and go to bed.”
The warlords laughed and rose from their seats, taking their wine with them. As they left, Minghis’ knights began closing up the yurt. Even as large as it was, the yurt could not hold all of his warlords, so the sides had been lifted up to form a roof over the area surrounding it.
“Ornella,” Minghis said as his daughter was about to leave. “A moment.”
“Make one more patrol around the hex boundary before you retire for the night.”
“Yes, father,” Ornella replied. He could tell that she was less than enthused about this task. He couldn’t fault her for that – like himself she had consumed a few goblets of wine and was no doubt tired from the day’s events.
He was about to turn away, when he saw her stop abruptly. For a moment she just stood there.
“Ornella?” he asked.
“I don’t have to obey you,” she said quietly.
“We have an alliance,” Minghis began.
“Yes, yes,” she interrupted, turning back to face him. “But, it is not the same. I was just thinking to myself that I didn’t want to do this. I just want to find a strapping stabber, drag him to my yurt and pass out in my bed.”
Minghis could not help but chuckle at that, in spite of Ornella’s impertinence.
“And then I realized that I don’t have to do it,” she continued. “I will not automagically disband if I disobey your orders. I could refuse.”
“There would be consequences,” Minghis warned her.
“Of course there would,” she agreed. “But it is my choice. This is what you meant, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“This is what freedom is,” she went on. “This is what you wanted to give me – to give all of us.”
“Yes, it is,” Minghis said, relaxing.
“You truly are the Light of the Dawn,” she said.
“I am glad you understand,” Minghis said. “Forget the patrol and go find yourself a stabber for the night.”
Ornella thought for a moment.
“No,” she said. “I’m going to make that patrol – it needs to be done. Dixieland knows that our truce is no more. Then I’m going to find myself two handsome stabbers before I pass out for the night.”
Minghis laughed out loud as Ornella strode from the yurt and into the night.
“She certainly is your daughter,” Sonja said behind him. “And now she knows what it means to be a barbarian.”
“That she does,” Minghis agreed.
* * *
King Condon was sitting in the throne room, strumming his guitar when he felt his crown receive the report. He gently set down the instrument and removed his crown to retrieve the report. He broke open Harrison’s seal and almost could not believe what he read.
Arboria razed. No sign of the enemy. Following the road to the next city site. Will report every morning and evening from this point forward.
Could it be? Had some other side eliminated the threat at his border? Or, was whatever had destroyed Mangolia the true threat that Barkoff had been warning him of?
* * *
Warcry’s cry alerted her to the presence of the enemy below. Two stacks of scouts on nickelback were galloping for the hex boundary. Too bad they weren’t going to be able to cross it.
“Dive!” she commanded and the three wings of warhawks plunged toward the ground. The scouts reached the northern hex boundary and stopped, splitting off to the southwest and southeast.
“That’s right!” she laughed. “Barbarians get their turn first!” She silently ordered one wing to pursue the scouts to the west while she led the other two wings east.
“Fire!” she ordered. Even as she and eighteen other archers fired, a pitiful volley from the scouts below rose up to meet them. Warcry took no damage, unlike the scouts below. A couple fell from their saddles and the rest rode on as the hawks soared over them. Ornella twisted in the saddle and fired again as Warcry rose into the air ahead of them.
“Woo!” she cried in ecstasy and was joined by Warcry’s piercing shriek. She and the two wings with her banked for another pass at the scouts. Below them, what was left of the stack scattered, each fleeing in a different direction. Ornella ordered her two wings to split up and pursue. It was over in heartbeats.
* * *
Minghis examined the spoils from Ornella’s raid. Armor, weapons, clothing – nothing of great value.
“Do you wish to claim any of this?” Minghis asked his daughter. Ornella sneered.
“Why would I want any of this trash?” she said. “This looks to be the only thing of value.”
She handed him a hat and a wand. Minghis turned them over in his hands. The hat was a simple gray twill hat with a black leather bill and a brass trumpet sewn into the front of the cap itself.
“Cashcarry, are these magical?” Minghis asked, handing them to his son.
“Absolutely,” Caschcarry confirmed. “This is almost certainly a sending hat. There should be…”
His voice trailed off as he examined first the wand and then the hat closely.
“Here, I believe this is the command word,” he said, pointing to the inside band of the hat.
“Marconi,” Minghis muttered. “Let’s find out. Bring me paper and ink.”
* * *
King Condon examined the map. It would take at least a dozen turns for his forces and his natural allies, the woodsy elves, to arrive at Arboria. They could make it to Summer Fort in half that time, but that would add another turn if he wanted to send them on to Arboria.
He had felt the complete loss of Harrison’s scouting party the turn after the report from Arboria. There had been no final message. He had immediately come to the war room. Whoever had razed Arboria was now headed for Dixieland.
He felt the rumble as his crown received an incoming missive. Instinctively he glanced to the northern part of the map where markers represented his son and Count Gordon’s forces. Please Titans, he thought. He could not deal with bad news from there as well. Condon removed his crown and tapped it with the wand.
“Bell,” he intoned. He slowly pulled the folded parchment from the crown. The wax seal bore the stamp of a diving hawk. He knew that emblem. Angrily he broke open the seal. The note was very brief.
Thanks for the hat.
Really great read. Since you reacted so enthusiastically about my comments, here are another two and a guess:
The level 5 city of Gobwin Knob pops one twoll per turn, therefore your pop rate of four twolls per turn seem way to high.
Towers can only shoot units in the airspace, not units on the ground. Therefore the tower could not have shot at the siege towers even if it had been spelled up.
This one is just a guess, but since hex boundaries tend to stop anything without move baring a few exceptions I think that a fire cannot spread from a single hex. At the least, there must be some mechanism which keeps fires from spreading to far, otherwise the whole of Erfworld would have burnt down by now. Remember, weather does not change in Erfworld, therefore there is no rainfall which could stop a flaming blaze. One campfire gone out control could burn down the whole of Erf not counting some desert or arctic regions. Or at least one continent if Erfworld is continental.
Thanks for commenting. Do you know where it states the pop rate for twolls in GK? I dug through the archives before writing this and couldn't find a specific number. I did find where it was stated that GK could pop them at level 1, so I assumed one per turn per city level.
I'm not quite as certain about the siege towers. I was thinking that, since they were actually taller than the wall, perhaps the tower could strike at them - that their tops actually stuck up into the airspace.
As far as inferno hexes go, yeah, no clue. I opted for assuming there was a medium to low chance for an inferno to spread to adjacent flammable hexes, but I have no idea. If the chance is low, a fire could spread but would still eventually die out. But hey, for all I know it stops right at the wall of the hex boundary. Here's another odd thought. In adjacent forest hexes, do tree branches abruptly stop at the hex boundary?
But again, I'm really glad you're enjoying the story.
The twoll pop rate is shown on Book 2 Page 5: "Gobwin Knob had popped two Twoll on its two turns since being rebuilt,..."
As for the towers, your right if you build them taller and taller, at some point the would be high enough to reach into the airspace. At that point the barrier between zones would go trough them. Units off turn would be stuck between zones in them. However I doubt siege towers are ever built higher that one story taller then the walls you wish to assault. The higher they are the less stable they become and you would not want them toppled by enemies applying force at the top. Now that I think about it, towers are items which pop together with a stack of diggers (Inner Peace (Through Superior Firepower) - Episode 006) so I think they have a standardized size. That should not stop someone if they wanted to create a custom built one though.
About the tree, either it would follow arrow behavior, meaning it would stop in midair if the unit felling it was not acting on its side turn, or it could fall no matter what. To answer that question you would have to ask Rob Balder. Making up a fictional world is hard, especially if includes magic and/or nonstandard physics (Though if the world includes magic, physics gets trounced anyway).
Yes, I found the same page after Salvage pointed me to the general location. I've adjusted the opening paragraph accordingly.
The siege towers in book 0 sound more like the turtles that were used to protect sappers or rammers working against the wall/gate. Ansom's siege towers from book 1 are more what I had in mind. I wonder if Erfworld has more than one type of siege tower just like we did. The other type might have to be built manually.
I think fire spreading to other hexes can be possible - 'fire is never off turn', but the chance of it spreading is low and into non-flammable hexes is next to nothing. There can be less growth near hex boundaries, which would be related to trees not growing through them, and also explain the low chances of fire spreading.
Just commenting to say that I love this series. Beyond carrying out the premise spectacularly so far, you've also managed to establish characters outside of the main Side that we now actually have a hope of seeing stick around, and without forcing anything either (except maybe a bit of forgivable generosity on the productivity of the mangolian cities). Nice job.
I love this story line AND how you are moving it along without months in between! A thought on Siege Tower vs Defensive Tower. I siege is grounded, my like the Juggle Elves ground their poles and I believe that is the protection it receives against the Defensive Towers ( other than just being a ground unit ) no matter how high it extends, it is meant to break walls. I have noticed that Erf is a very rock paper scissors type of world so this makes sense to me.