The Horde, Part Nine
Part Nine: The Stealthy Way
by Thomas K. Martin
It was strange ruling a side again, even if it was only a side of eight units without a capital. This afternoon he had released Sir Barringer on Dixieland’s turn. Unlike the Woodsy Elf, King Condon had agreed to a ransom of five thousand shmuckers for his warlord – and his hat. Honestly, Minghis wasn’t certain which it was the king had wanted back more.
After Dixieland’s next turn, Minghis would raze this city, but not before it had deposited another three thousand shmuckers, minus upkeep, into his purse and popped new units. The city had been popping archers when he claimed it. As a Dixieland city, Summer Fort could pop standard infantry, including pikers, and nickel horses as its first tier units. Since he would not have time to pop any units other than first tier, Minghis had immediately changed the city production to nickel horses. Any Men he could have popped would not be members of the Mango tribe unless he razed and rebuilt the city, which he had no intention of doing.
The tribe was busy looting the city. The larder was being loaded into oxcarts along with every scrap of metal. Tonight they would feast, but not on their spoils. No, tonight they would feast on hawk and ram and horseflesh. The twolls were busily preparing the fallen animals – those that were not at work in Summer Fort’s forge with Cashcarry.
This battle had cost them, but not as greatly as Minghis had feared. They had lost the four rams that broke the gate and four of the hawks had fallen during the battle with their riders. Their greatest loss had been the eighteen knights which had fallen rooting Sir Barringer out of the dungeon. Beyond that, they had lost only a handful of stabbers.
Minghis could promote some of the stabbers to knight, but that was far too expensive at the moment. Perhaps after the next city, although Minghis doubted that would fall as easily. Summer Fort had only been lightly defended. The bulk of Dixieland’s army was elsewhere. He needed to know where.
“What are you thinking, Father?” Khan asked, walking up beside where Minghis stood on the courtyard walls looking out over the outer city.
Minghis looked at his son, an allied barbarian warlord. That, too, was strange.
“I was wondering why this city was so lightly defended,” Minghis replied.
“Because Dixieland is weak,” Khan laughed.
“No, son. Dixieland has nine cities – well, eight now. They should have double the number of men as us.”
“Then where are they?”
“That is the question,” Minghis agreed. “Find your sister and meet me in the war room. We will see if Kala can find them.”
* * *
Chief Gordon studied the map table before him. Stabbers and archers were now en route to the capital from Gate City and Nawlins. Five stacks of each from Gate City and three stacks of each from Nawlins. That would leave Gate City with fewer troops than Nawlins until reinforcements could arrive in Gate City from Palmetto in three turns. That would give him another eight stacks of stabbers and archers to defend the capital.
Gordon looked northwest of Azalea at the markers that indicated Prince Murphy’s assault force. If he ordered the knights to separate from the main column now, they could be here at River City in three turns. Ten stacks of knights – would they be better here ahead of Minghis’ army, or protecting the prince?
If he waited until the column reached Azalea in two turns, the knights could still be here one turn ahead of Minghis. He would wait. Hopefully, by then, he would have more information.
Gordon looked over the troop reports from Azalea and Emerald Coast. He could easily order troops from those cities to reinforce Gump and Dogwood, respectively. However, there was no point to it. The few stacks of stabbers and archers he could order to each city would little effect on those battles if the barbarians marched on them instead of the capital. Minghis’ force was simply too large.
Scattered across the map were markers indicating stacks of Woodsy Elves. Until now, Dixieland had used their natural allies as scouts and, occasionally, as light raiders. Now, every pocket of elves was headed toward the capital. By the time they reached the capital, there would be twenty stacks of the stealthy archers.
Gordon’s eyes strayed to one hex on the map – a forest hex only two hexes from Summer Fort. A single marker sat there, indicating seven Woodsy Elves – their only eyes on the barbarian horde.
He would have ordered Sir Barringer to join them but, as a Man, he would only risk exposing the elves to the enemy. One thing Sir Barringer was not, was stealthy. Still, Gordon had given the warlord a unique set of orders this morning…
* * *
Nara Shan waited in the trees by the road. She had veiled herself and one of her stackmates as a pair of Timber Wolves to evade detection by the enemy lookamancer. The other members of her stack she had left in the scout blinds she had prepared for them. The less they moved, the better.
As she watched the road, a Dixieland warlord rode by on a nickel horse, right on schedule. She watched from the trees, her own foolamancy mimicking the natural camouflage of the Timber Wolf to stay hidden. When the warlord reached the fork in the road her chief had ordered her to watch, he removed his hat and threw it by the brim into the woods.
Nara Shan waited until he had ridden out of sight before running to retrieve the hat. A wand was clipped to the hatband, wrapped in a piece of paper. Nara Shan resized the hat small enough to fit in her pouch and ran back to where her stackmates waited at the scouting blind.
This shallow pit beneath a pile of brush had been camouflaged with her foolamancy. If the lookamancer probed this bush with her magic, she would see nothing but a patch of brush and stinging nettles with nothing beneath it but bare dirt – hopefully.
Once in the safety of the blind, she unrolled the parchment from around the wand. At the top were written the command words – Marco to send and Polo to receive. Beneath that were her orders to observe which road the enemy forces took and return that information using this hat. They would live in this blind until two turns from now, waiting for the enemy to move.
Now, however, there was a much more important piece of information she needed to send Chief Gordon of Dixieland…
* * *
Gordon was a little surprised when he felt his hat rumble atop his head. All of his orders for the turn had already been sent and acknowledged.
“Shackleton,” he intoned, tapping the brim of the hat with his wand. He removed the small, torn piece of parchment from the hat and read it.
“Curse me for a fool!” he shouted, startling both Dale and the king from their game at a nearby table. Dale recovered first.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The enemy has a lookamancer!” Gordon exclaimed, throwing the scrap of parchment onto the map table. “That’s why our ambush failed!”
“A lookamancer?” the king asked, walking over to the table and picking up the note. “Are you certain?”
“It explains everything,” Gordon replied. “How they knew we were coming in time to reinforce Arboria, how they have marched through our territory from clearing to clearing as though they knew it better than we do, how they found the logging camp, the ambush – everything!”
“How does this change our strategy?” King Condon asked.
“Well, for one thing,” Gordon said as he took the croupier’s rake from its hooks on the side of the table, “we assume they can see everything!”
Using the handle instead of the rake Gordon cleared every marker from the map table. Then he picked up the entire stack of troop reports and hurled them into the fireplace.
“By the Titans!” King Condon exclaimed.
“Dale,” Gordon said to her, “you are our only defense against this. All messages have to be encoded by signamancy from this point forward.”
“I can make code books for our commanders to use,” Dale told him. “Only they will be able to read them. Our messages will look like nonsense to the enemy. I should be able to make two, maybe three, per turn.”
“Start with one for myself and Prince Murphy,” Gordon ordered. “Until then, we issue only ruler orders to commanders without code books. Can we shield this room from them?”
“Not with signamancy,” Dale replied, shaking her head. “For that we’d need a foolamancer - on contract for the duration of the war.”
“Find one!” King Condon ordered. “Tonight, after you’ve made all of the code books you can.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
* * *
“They’ve cleared the table, Sire,” Kala told him. “They know about me, somehow. Someone sent them a message that I exist.”
“But you saw their troop layouts?” Minghis asked.
“I need a projection.”
“At once, Sire,” Klytus replied. He touched the back of Kala’s head with the fingers of his left hand and then Cashcarry with the fingers of his right.
“Memorex, Verbatim, TDK,” Cashcarry intoned. A replica of the war room map table in Dixieland’s capital as it had been a few moments ago appeared in front of Minghis. He spent several minutes studying the terrain and the troop placements of the entire enemy side.
“Here,” Minghis said indicating a large force to the northeast. “This is where their army is.”
“It’s all the way across the kingdom from us,” Khan noted. “Northeast of Azalea. Why?”
“Because they were at war with someone else,” Minghis said. “Probably the Earl Land they thought we were allied with.”
“Are they still at war?” Ornella asked.
“I don’t think so,” Minghis told her. “This army is only a turn or two past Azalea. I think they are coming back to deal with us.”
“How large is their force?” Khan asked.
“I can’t be certain,” Minghis said, leaning over the projection to study the stack of figures northeast of Azalea.
“If each of these figures is a stack…,” he mused, “ten stacks of knights, twenty of stabbers, ten of pikers, ten of archers, no siege. But look at this figure.”
Both Ornella and Khan leaned in to look at the projected figure Minghis was pointing to. It looked almost like a white chess piece with a golden crown.
“The king?” Ornella asked.
“No,” Minghis said with a smile. “His heir.”
* * *
Once again, Gordon stood over the map table. Dale had returned last night with a master class foolamancer from the Magic Kingdom named Fahred Dey. According to her, all of the foolamancer’s she had spoken with claimed that this man was better than any of them at blocking lookamancy and even thinkamancy.
They were paying for it, as well – triple his upkeep for every turn of his employ, six hundred shmuckers per turn, paid daily. He had also requested that the map table be set up in the portal room. He claimed that his protective magic would be more effective underground, but Gordon suspected that the barbarian caster simply wanted to be close to the portal if the city came under attack.
The foolamancer had spent all night and all of his juice building a strange, glowing construct around the portal room. Once in place, he claimed that it would only require about half of his daily juice to maintain. According to him, no lookamancy or thinkamancy would be able to penetrate into the portal room while it persisted. It appeared as if the entire room, and the doorway into it, had been wrapped in a hexagonal mesh of some type, almost like a net.
The portal room was cooler than the war room and there was no fireplace to hold the chill at bay. Gordon made a mental note to bring a coat with him the next time he left the room.
Even with the chill, it was good to have the map table back in use. Last turn, Gordon had been forced to order his Woodsy Elf scouts away from Summer Fort, in case Minghis’ lookamancer had seen their location on the map table. But it didn’t matter. Fahred, in addition to being a master foolamancer, was also an adept lookamancer. When Dixieland’s turn ended at noon today, he would show them which road the barbarians took.
Prince Murphy’s column would reach Azalea this turn. Once they knew where the barbarian was headed, Gordon would discuss Prince Murphy’s orders with the king.
“Sir Barringer has arrived,” the king informed him. The turn was very near its end if Barringer had arrived.
“Please have him come to the portal room, your majesty,” Gordon replied. “Master Dey, our turn is about to end. Give us eyes on Summer Fort.”
Fahred Dey complied and a dwagon’s eye view of the city appeared over the map table. At this scale, Gordon could easily see the city and all six hexes surrounding it. They watched as the turn ended and Minghis’ army moved out onto the northeast road. So, either the capital or Dogwood was their destination.
“Reporting as ordered, your majesty,” Barringer said, startling Gordon.
“Stand by, Sir Barringer,” Gordon ordered. “Master Dey, center on that hex. Get me closer, but I still want to see the city.”
To Gordon it almost seemed as if the hex came up to meet them, dropping about half the distance in a few seconds. It made him a little dizzy for just a moment. Now he could almost make out individual figures in Minghis’ army.
“This is incredible,” Sir Barringer whispered. He was not wrong. Gordon thought this alone was almost worth what they were paying Master Dey. Almost.
“What is happening here?” Gordon asked, pointing to a location near the gate. A few figures stood alone by the gate. Gordon was almost certain one of them was Minghis.
There was that same disorienting sense of moving and falling without movement and Gordon could now see that it had indeed been Minghis by the gate. One man had his hands on Minghis’ shoulders and the overlord was raising his arms toward the city, as if to raze it. There was an oxcart next to them. Something in it sparkled.
“Closer!” Gordon ordered.
Gordon gasped in surprise. The oxcart was full of gems and more gems were falling into it, appearing in midair. This too, explained everything.
“I need to see that caster’s face!” Gordon ordered.
“Any closer and their lookamancer may detect…” Dey began.
“I don’t care!” Gordon said. “I need to see his face! Dale, attend!”
This time the perspective shift was so drastic that Gordon had to grip the edges of the map table to steady himself. Now it was as though he were looking directly at Minghis and his men. The caster looked…clean, for lack of a better word. No facial hair, at all, almost like a woman, but definitely male. Gordon would know him if he saw him again.
Then a woman, dressed in black trousers and a black sequined tunic turned to look directly at him, surprise plain on her face. The lookamancer, no doubt. She had a harsh face, beneath a gold headdress and a mock breastplate, also of gold. Her look changed from surprise to a snarl of anger and she gestured as her lips moved in speech. The image vanished.
“As I warned…,” Master Dey began.
“Can you regain your original view?” Gordon interrupted.
“Yes, she cannot block my view from that far out.”
“Do so,” Gordon ordered. “Dale, Barringer, did you see that caster? The effete male?”
“Yes, Viscount,” Barringer replied.
“As did I,” Dale added.
“From now on, that is our primary target,” Gordon said. “Kill him and a few turns later this entire army will vanish. That is their moneymancer!”
* * *
“The enemy is watching us,” Kala said as soon as the razing of Summer Fort had been completed.
“What?” Minghis asked. “How?”
“Lookamancer,” Kala said. “Apparently they have one of their own. I have not felt him before…they must have recently acquired him.”
“Can you keep them from spying on us?” Minghis asked.
“Only if I do nothing else.”
“When we make plans this evening, you will block them,” Minghis ordered. “Otherwise, continue to scout.”
“Is there nothing we can do to prevent them from spying on us?” Ornella asked.
“It matters not,” Minghis told her. “Let them see us coming.”